UK Report: Active Transportation Can Fight Climate Change, Air Pollution and Traffic Congestion

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CC BY 2.0. Walking and cycling in London/ Lloyd Alter

It talks a lot about cycling, but notes that we don't do nearly enough about walking.

These are confusing times in the UK, and it will soon have a new Prime Minister who likes riding bikes. So it is an interesting coincidence that, on the day he won the vote, the House of Commons transport committee published the report Active travel: increasing levels of walking and cycling in England. The summary said it all:

The economic, human and environmental costs of inactivity, climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion are huge. Active travel can help combat all of these, and as they become more pressing concerns there is an increasingly compelling case for policymakers to give active travel the attention and funding that it has not historically received.
journey length

© Journey length and trip mode/ Open Parliament licence v3.0

It is a really interesting study for a number of reasons. Building on previous work, it finds that more emphasis should be put on walking, since people do it already, and such a high proportion of trips in England are relatively short.

trip length

© Trip length

The Government’s commitment to increasing levels of walking and cycling is welcome but its current targets are not ambitious enough, particularly for walking. Despite being the most accessible and widely undertaken form of active travel—and being part of almost every journey—walking is rarely given proper attention by policymakers and planners.


© Spending/ Open Parliamentary Licence v3.0

The report notes that funding for active travel is tiny, piecemeal, and complex, and that "the Government has not given local authorities the certainty they need to prioritise active travel and make long-term funding commitments."

A controversial recommendation in the report is that to really get a modal shift of people from driving to active transport, you have to make walking and cycling easier, but also make driving harder.

We have been told that simply improving walking and cycling infrastructure is not sufficient to encourage modal shift if driving is a cheaper and more convenient alternative. Several submissions suggest policy interventions which would make driving less attractive, and so encourage modal shift. These include: Clean Air Zones, road pricing, parking restrictions, workplace parking levies, and increases to fuel duty.

This is, of course, what drives all the resistance to bike lanes and road diets, that drivers of cars are going to lose. But as the report notes, "The greatest benefits of increasing levels of walking and cycling—to individual health, the environment and congestion—will only be realised if people choose to walk or cycle instead of driving." We have to make the kind of changes that will encourage people to get out of cars.

The emphasis on walking is significant, since almost anyone of any age can do it. As the report notes:

As inactivity, climate change, air pollution and road congestion all become more pressing concerns there is an increasingly compelling case for policymakers to give active travel the attention that it has not historically received. The benefits of active travel are many and well understood, but bear repeating. Active travel:
• is good for individual health and can reduce national health spending;
• is a cheap form of transport;
• can help reduce congestion;
• can improve air quality;
• can increase productivity and footfall in town centres.

Meanwhile, back in North America, it is almost impossible to walk in many places. Sidewalks often don't exist, are not maintained, are used as parking spaces or are not cleared in winter.

This report was written for England, but the conclusions apply everywhere; better walking and cycling infrastructure is just about the cheapest investment in transportation, and has all kinds of benefits. It is a cheap and easy fix, but as Doug Gordon always complains, "Let's all argue about parking spaces," instead of actually doing anything.