How highways managers can take the lead on Active Travel

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Join the revolution. Not a rallying cry you hear every day. Nor one you would expect to come from the Government.

But a revolution is what the Department for Transport wants to see. As it sets out in its July 2020 white paper, Gear Change: a bold vision for cycling and walking:

“Places will be truly walkable. A travel revolution in our streets, towns and communities will have made cycling a mass form of transit. Cycling and walking will be the natural first choice for many journeys with half of all journeys in towns and cities being cycled or walked by 2030.”

Call it a revolution. Call it a step-change. Call it bold action. The era of active travel is upon us.

And highways managers have a big part to play.

From theory to practice

How do local authorities translate the theory of active travel into practice? Into a network where people actually want to walk, cycle, and scoot?

Through highways engineers and asset managers. They will be the ones to deliver something that works on a practical level. And rather than being told what the strategy for active travel is, there is an opportunity for highway managers to take a lead.

There are also good reasons you should want to do so. Not least the potential for accessing funding from a new pot. £2 billion that’s ring-fenced for walking and cycling infrastructure improvement schemes.

But, as we will see, there is also a pressing need to get to grips with the active travel revolution. And fast.

So, how can you take the lead in helping your local authority transition to this new age of active travel?

A change of perspective

First, you need to look at your network in a new way – through the prism of cycling and walking.

The DfT’s white paper states that cycling and walking measures must no longer be an afterthought. Cycling and walking are to be at the heart of transport decision-making. At all levels of leadership.

Be prepared for annual inspections

The Government expects to see action. It is creating a new commissioning body and inspectorate for walking and cycling. A new National Cycling and Walking Commissioner will lead it.

Active Travel England will have several functions. It will consider applications for funding from the £2 billion cycling budget. It will enforce the Government’s new cycling design guidance. And soon, it will inspect, and publish annual reports on, highway authorities. Whether they have received funding from Active Travel England or not.

It will grade your highway authority on its active travel performance. It will also identify any dangerous failings in your highways for cyclists and pedestrians. That assessment will influence the funding your council receives for local transport schemes.

Think of it as an ‘Ofsted inspection’ for your network. Indeed, the white paper says the commissioner and inspectorate will perform a similar role to Ofsted. Raising standards and challenging failure.

The importance of route condition

One thing the DfT’s guidance on cycle infrastructure design makes clear is this. Improved cycle infrastructure is a key part of general highway improvement and maintenance. (See in particular principle 13.)

Again, this requires a mindset shift. Considering road condition from the standpoint of its impact on cyclists, for whom the consequences of hitting a pothole are likely to be far more serious.

Active travel routes are likely to demand smoother surfaces. Services such as Gaist’s footway and cycleway surveys alongside carriageway and asset surveys can help keep you on top of this more rigorous monitoring.

Encouraging active travel

While there are multiple departments and people within your local authority with the responsibility of encouraging active travel, there are several factors that relate to how highway managers can increase active travel. Here are some factors to consider.

Accessibility to all

First, one of the most important considerations. Remember that the Government wants active travel to be for all groups in society. Cycle infrastructure and routes should be “accessible to everyone from 8 to 80.”

  • Pay attention to route availability and condition in your more deprived areas.

  • Are there areas of your town/city with particular health inequalities?

  • In your scheme designs, are you avoiding creating hazards for vulnerable pedestrians?

  • Also, think about the barriers and enablers to active travel among 50–70-year-olds. See the helpful discussion in this report by the Centre for Ageing Better.

Maintaining route attractiveness

Active travel routes need to remain attractive. Otherwise, people won’t make a habit of cycling or walking as their preferred mode of travel.

Consider the ‘broken windows theory’ in criminology. Improving a neighbourhood’s environment sees crime and anti-social behaviour fall.

You can apply the same logic to active travel. Local authorities will struggle to encourage more cycling and walking where cycle paths, footways, or roads are poorly maintained.

Hierarchy of travel

What’s your hierarchy of travel versus your normal hierarchy of roads? For instance, the routes cyclists prefer might not be your traditional maintenance and inspection priorities.

Also, examine your network for any problem areas. Hotspots that are barriers to people walking, cycling, or using other forms of active travel. Gaist is building an Active Travel Index that can help with this. We have already started work with pilot local authorities.

An active role for highways managers

Effective planning for active travel means planning for the long term. It means involving highway managers at an early stage. Reducing the risk of infrastructure failing further down the line.

Local authorities need to integrate good maintenance and management practices from the outset.

For highways managers, active travel is likely to require a mindset shift. But there are also opportunities.

Opportunity to lead the discussion and – if you’re smart with your funding – opportunities to tap into new pots of money.

For more information on how Gaist can help with your active travel programmes, please contact:

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