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.
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