National Audit Office Report Paints Bleak Picture on Active Travel

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A National Audit Office (NAO) report published today has examined the progress made towards the government’s active travel targets. In a move befitting scriptwriters of a political satire, the NAO announced its intention to conduct the study in March, just days before the government announced millions of pounds in cuts to active travel funding, and then announced a tax freeze on fuel prices. It is perhaps then not much of a surprise to discover that the National Audit Office has found that it appears unlikely that active travel targets will be met.

The report also finds that there is a lack of capacity and consistency available in both the delivering of active travel schemes, and the measuring of their success. However, it cites some green shoots of hope in the form of Active Travel England, a body set up to help build capacity and to support the delivery of active travel schemes. The report notes some process improvements already implemented by Active Travel England, however since it only opened its offices in February this year it has had limited time to see these changes bearing fruit.

The Walking and Cycling Alliance has issued a press release, but before we get to that, how about some graphs from the report, along with some thoughts about what they might (not) show.

This first chart doesn’t give us any pre-covid trends to see. Since we know that in 2020 there was a massive increase in cycle sales, schools and shops were closed for long periods and many of us stopped commuting to work, the rise from 2019 to 2020 would seem inevitable. The drop off after 2020 is probably to be expected as some people return to previous habits. What will be interesting to see is how the trend continues after 2022 – will the graph continue downwards, or is the 2021 figure a correction and we’ll start heading upwards again?

The 2019 drop doesn’t bode well, and the 2020 figures – when many people found themselves still working from home as schools reopened – are likely anomalous. If you don’t have your own commute to the office to fit in, you may well have more time in the day to walk your kids to school instead of driving them. Or, if there was a nice safe route to follow, maybe you could walk your kids to school before pedalling on to your work?

A stage is part of an overall trip – so if you made part of it on foot (like walked to a train station) then you’ve counted as a walking stage.

Likewise, if you ride part of a trip you’ve counted as a cycle stage. Again, for both walking and cycling, the trends are likely disrupted by Covid commuting habits. While people stayed home during the lockdowns, they were also nervous about getting back onto public transport – meaning some opportunities for cycle and walking stages to catch a bus or train would be lost. Will the longer term trends show people commuting less overall, or hopping in the car more often when they do? Perhaps all those that moved to the countryside to take advantage of home working will find that getting to the office without a car is too difficult?

Regardless of any funding inputs or effective policy or infrastructure interventions, the above graphs hardly paint a picture of a nation moving rapidly towards active travel. The most hopeful signs are in the category of short journeys in towns and cities, but the data provided probably doesn’t yet show enough to determine if a long term trend has been established. Anecdotally, we’ve seen a huge increase in interest in cargo bikes and e-commuters, which might suggest that second cars are being ditched for those short journeys. But whether that is a trend among the bike-curious and eco-conscious, or normalised across the wider population remains to be seen. And of course, it’s not all about getting to work – how many of us can (or do) choose an active option for our evening and weekend errands?

The National Audit Office states:

DfT’s progress to date suggests it will not achieve three of its four 2025 objectives for increasing active travel, and progress on the fourth is uncertain.
DfT’s objectives relate to increasing overall walking and cycling activity, with specific objectives for school journeys and short journeys made in towns and cities. The latest survey data, from 2021, show little overall progress against its objectives. Whilst one measure was close to its 2025 target, this may reflect changes to travel patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic which appear not to have been sustained. For the other three, levels of activity are lower than they were when the first Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was published in 2017. DfT’s recent progress is uncertain because it does not know the long-term impact of the pandemic on travel behaviour. However, in 2022 DfT undertook modelling to assess the likelihood of meeting its 2025 objectives and found that these were unlikely to be met.

So, neither the DfT nor NAO thinks the 2025 targets look likely to be met. Campaigners agree, and are calling for the government to publish data to show the funding needed to meet the targets by 2025. Here’s that press release from the Walking and Cycling Alliance:

Persistent underfunding leaves Government active travel targets “in tatters”

A National Audit Office (NAO) report released today (7th June) has revealed that statutory targets to get more people walking and cycling are “in tatters”, after years of stop-start funding.

The failure to meet Department for Transport objectives will directly impact future generations and their ability to walk, wheel and cycle safely, leaving a legacy of poor air quality and reduced public health, according to campaign groups.

The damning report examined whether the Department of Transport (DfT) is set up to achieve its objectives by 2025 and comes three months after the DfT slashed active travel funding.

The Government’s own target of 46% of urban journeys being walked, wheeled or cycled in the next two years is now impossible to reach, the report finds, despite this being a cornerstone of the Government’s Gear Change vision of 2020.

It also found that despite the targets to increase the numbers of people walking and cycling; and the percentage of children aged five to ten walking to school – all activity levels are now lower than when the objectives were set in 2017.

Campaign groups have also criticised the Government’s persistent underfunding of active travel as “missing an easy win”, suggesting that commitments laid out in the current Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy are now void.

The report authors highlighted a complex web of short-term funding pots across central government, hampering the ability for local authorities to plan and deliver ambitious projects.

Xavier Brice, CEO at walking and cycling charity Sustrans, said: “It’s clear the Government has backpedalled on its promises, and is missing an easy win on the path to achieving Net Zero commitments, with proven benefits for public health.

“This report reveals that active travel objectives are in tatters, and only serves to highlight that long-term and ring-fenced investment can transform lives, if done well.”

Members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance including the campaign groups The Bikeability Trust, British Cycling, Cycling UK, Living Streets, Sustrans and the Ramblers, welcomed the report, and are today calling for the Government to publish its own evidence for the funding required to achieve its objectives for 2025 and 2030 targets.

Sustrans revealed in its Walking and Cycling Index that active travel contributed £36.5 billion to the UK economy in 2021, from a relatively modest investment from Government compared to other transport modes.

Extrapolating from the Index 2021 figures to the UK population found that people walking, wheeling and cycling took 14.6 million cars off the road, saving 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Research by the charity also showed that by keeping people active through walking, wheeling and cycling 138,000 serious long-term health conditions were prevented and more than 29,000 early deaths avoided in 2021.

While you’re here…

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Hannah Dobson

Managing Editor

I came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. I like all bikes, but especially unusual ones. More than bikes, I like what bikes do. I think that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments. I try to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

More posts from Hannah

Viewing 19 posts - 1 through 19 (of 19 total)
  • National Audit Office Report Paints Bleak Picture on Active Travel
  • 5
    rootes1
    Full Member

    I walk or cycle the single just over a mile to my daughters school. Some of her classmates are being driven to school from less than 1/2mile away… and then those parents just drive home again.

    and people are ‘amazed’ we walk so far…

     

     

     

    7
    ayjaydoubleyou
    Full Member

    for everything about active travel, congestion, pollution, road safety etc; there is a big elephant in the room

    and people are ‘amazed’ we walk so far…

    a huge number of able bodied people thinking that 15-20 minutes of gentle exercise is “amazing” and prohibitively difficult.

    we are sleep-waddling our way into a health crisis

    3
    TheBrick
    Free Member

    Same story. We don’t have great cycle lanes in town. We have very few cycle lanes out of town / connecting satallite twins and villages. If there are cycle lanes they are either poorly maintained railway line or right next to a main road, not separated the other side of a hedge like in Germany (for example) giving relief from noise and spray and meaning I would be happy to send my kids down the cycle lane compared to one on the edge of a curb.

    I used to be anti cycle lanes then I realised not everyone was 25-35 fit confident cyclist who was happy bunny hop kerbs and get into fights.

    2
    chakaping
    Full Member

    Let me guess, it says “it’s an absolute **** shitshow”?

    1
    TheBrick
    Free Member

    Just to add I cycled kids to school today (~2miles) lucky for us most of the way along a bridle path which is ok in this weather but not for 9 months of the year unless you want to get your kids changed at the gate. So despite enjoying “untility cycling”, having a quiet route I still don’t do it very often.

    pondo
    Full Member

    I’m not helping. :( Bought an e-bike to commute, pretty much as it arrived Mrs Pondo was diagnosed with a herniated disk and it’s generally too painful to sit, let alone drive, so I have to chauffer her in and out of work (so I’m WFH and spending two hours a day commuting!). She goes under the knife in a fortnight – all being well, then let the e-biking commence! :)

    (She’ll be e-bike commuting too when better. :) )

    4
    finephilly
    Free Member

    Do you want a healthy, fun way to get around?
    No. I want an expensive, polluting deathbox please.
    Oh, and nobody else is allowed to use the roads, except me…

    4
    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    We do need to recognise the national differences.

    5
    crazy-legs
    Full Member

    We don’t know if we’re coming or going at work.

    We get awarded funding. It gets cut. It gets reannounced. We receive some of it with a promise that the remainder will arrive once we’ve spent the first lot but we can’t spend that without a guarantee of the rest.

    We can’t plan anything more than a few months in advance because it takes 4 months between the announcements (and re-announcements) to us actually receiving the money and there’s no guarantee we’ll get any more the following year so we have near zero pipeline of schemes available.

    We can’t afford to develop a pipeline because the funding for that is also grant-based.

    It’s utterly insane. Government, Treasury, DfT and National Highways all need throwing into the sea and rebuilding from scratch with a massive shift away from roads and towards active travel and public transport with guaranteed 5-year blocks of funding.

    Lost count of how many Transport Secretaries we’ve had in the last 3 years… 🙄

    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    It’s utterly insane.

    We’re working with DfE on a ‘flagship’ programme for England and Wales. I recognise and relate your experience of working with UK govt.

    MoreCashThanDash
    Full Member

    It’s utterly insane. Government, Treasury, DfT and National Highways all need throwing into the sea and rebuilding from scratch with a massive shift away from roads and towards active travel and public transport with guaranteed 5-year blocks of funding

    Absolutely this – and it applies to loads of other areas of public services as well.

    A Singletrack led dictatorship to provide some long term stability and direction is what is needed!

    1
    oldnpastit
    Full Member

    It can be done. I live just outside Cambridge, the infrastructure is amazing compared to just five years ago.

    The city centre is rammed with bikes, and even the village I live in has loads of kids going to school by bike or ebike.

    But there’s still loads of traffic and the planned congestion charging is up against a lot of opposition.

    squirrelking
    Free Member

    not for 9 months of the year unless you want to get your kids changed at the gate

    Do you not own waterproofs?

    Don’t get me wrong, riding into my work in the same timeframe is utterly miserable but that’s 7.5 miles along the coast with average gusts sitting around 30mph+ and heading into a 12hr shift. But 2 miles is a lot different, I’d happily do that, especially as I assume (perhaps wrongly) it’s nowhere near as exposed.

    1
    stwhannah
    Full Member

    I happened to drive through Inverness at school commute time the other week. Loads of infrastructure – kids all over the place riding to school, all ages. Wonder what’s gone right up there? Can’t be the weather!

    finephilly
    Free Member

    It’s about breaking the ‘car’ mindset. Obv, it’s more effort to ride/walk, but not that much slower. I actually think there is only a minority of people who really really want to drive everywhere. Most would ride/walk, if they lived in an LTN, for example…

    MoreCashThanDash
    Full Member

    It can be done. I live just outside Cambridge, the infrastructure is amazing compared to just five years ago.

    My lad is in Cambridge and has discovered how much quicker and useful a bike is for getting around the city and local area.

    crazy-legs
    Full Member

    It can be done. I live just outside Cambridge, the infrastructure is amazing compared to just five years ago.

    The city centre is rammed with bikes, and even the village I live in has loads of kids going to school by bike or ebike.

    Various parts of London are similar now but there’s still too much traffic, too many councillors who back down at the first hint of opposition and too much red tape and disconnect around the funding. Very piecemeal for a single scheme over here but none of the required complementary measures over there that would bring out its full potential.

    touchingewe
    Full Member

    We holidayed in Inverness last year and noticed how brilliant the cycling infrastructure was there and such a chilled out relaxed city. Loved it, now we all want to move there.

    rootes1
    Full Member

    was at Centre Parcs the other week. For may UK residents it could be used as an eye opener on how things could work if things were near, and infrastruture in place.

Viewing 19 posts - 1 through 19 (of 19 total)

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