At Sustrans, our vision is a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone. Why does this matter? Poor physical and mental health, air pollution crisis and the global climate emergency continue to make daily headlines. All the while our dependence on motor vehicles remains at an all-time high. Active travel has the potential to positively impact all of the above, yet cycling and walking levels have remained static UK-wide.

There’s huge potential for people to travel more actively. Results from the National Travel Survey [1] found that 25% of all trips in England were under one mile, of which 18% were by car or van, either as a driver or passenger. For journeys under five miles (68% of all trips), the proportion that were driven increased to 52%. This figure is worryingly high. It should be realistic for a significant proportion of the population to make many of these shorter journeys by bike or on foot given the right conditions.

The perception that walking and cycling are not safe is a major barrier. The 2018 Walking and Cycling Statistics demonstrate that 62% of adults in England agreed that “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”. This presents a paradox: traffic on our streets will continue to rise, as people only feel safe travelling by car.

Creating safer streets that are more attractive for walking and cycling is essential. Collectively, we know how to build high-quality infrastructure to achieve this and are starting to do so in many towns and cities across the UK albeit at a slow rate that means that coherent networks have yet to be delivered.

However, important as this is, we also need have to address our car dependency and recognise that if motor vehicles remain the most convenient mode of transport for shorter journeys we will continue to use them. This means our streets will remain hostile environments and travelling actively will remain an unattractive option for many.

The good news is that this societal behaviour change is possible. You only have to look across to the streets of many Northern European countries to see how many people make their shorter journeys by cycle or foot. In the Netherlands, cycling has a modal share of 27% of all trips nationwide, whilst in the UK cycling makes up a 2% modal share.

Key to effecting this change is understanding the attitudes and behaviours of those who drive regularly. In connection with our Bike Life project we are carrying out research into this, to help understand how we can reduce personal car use in ways that are more likely to be supported by people who drive.

In conclusion, I’d suggest that to realise the benefits from walking and cycling, we need both high-quality infrastructure and measures to discourage car use. Such measures should include road pricing/congestion charging, work place parking levies and parking restrictions. Delivering this will require courageous political leadership to both encourage and enforce the necessary behaviour change. But what a great legacy to have transformed society through the creation of safer, healthier streets.

[1] DfT, 2019

Will Haynes

Will Haynes

Infrastructure director, Sustrans