We live in a society dominated by cars. Our towns and villages have evolved for nearly 60 years around the convenience of the private automobile. As populations grow and more houses are built, we inevitably see more cars are on the road. Unless we reduce our addiction to cars we are heading for a future of congestion and poor health outcomes.
“Active Travel” is a term which the government coined in early 2020. Being allergic to jargon, I was a bit reluctant to use this term at first. I thought we should stick with Plain English: everyone knows what walking and cycling are. I also feared that some people might be put off by the term Active Travel. However, it became clear that the term is here to stay when the Government decided last year to attach funding streams to Active Travel. At that point I decided that I had better learn to accept the term and start using it myself.
I have belatedly realised that there are actually two substantial benefits which arise from using an all-encompassing term like Active Travel. First, the term is more inclusive: wheelchair users are neither walking nor cycling but they are certainly travelling actively. Second, the term Active Travel incorporates scooters and e-scooters, which look set to grow in popularity. For the sake of being concise, I can see that the term Active Travel is much better than the rather clunky formulation of “walking, wheeling, scooting and cycling”.
In May 2021, Active Travel became part of my responsibilities at Hampshire County Council as Executive Member for Highways Operations. I had been part of the committee considering Active Travel improvements in Petersfield for the last five years, so I was already familiar with the potential benefits and the challenges. I would like to summarise the benefits:
· Better physical and mental health in our communities
· Reduced carbon emissions, helping us reach net-zero carbon goals
· Reduced congestion on our roads, meaning better productivity
· Higher quality public realm, increasing economic growth and vibrancy
· Reduced air and noise pollution (both of which have negative health impacts).
Those are five tangible and important benefits. The climate emergency, the pandemic and the obesity crisis have all added to the urgent need to achieve those benefits by delivering Active Travel schemes across Hampshire.
In 2020, across the UK, emergency Active Travel pop-up schemes were implemented to facilitate social distancing during the pandemic.
We learned a lot from the emergency pop-up schemes about what works and what does not work quite so well. That learning has informed the next phases of Active Travel measures, which are currently being implemented. This time we have consulted communities carefully on all the forthcoming permanent schemes. (A key lesson from the pop-up schemes is that consultation is fundamentally necessary. During the pandemic, consultation was not undertaken due to the urgent need to stop the virus spreading.)
Funding is an issue, because the schemes do require a lot of planning and then there is the infrastructure cost. Community support is also an issue, and in some parts of Hampshire there is resistance to the reallocation of road space. I appreciate that many Active Travel campaigners are impatient for change. If you are one of those people, I would encourage you to help us to build support locally. Join together with others to make the case for Active Travel in your community. Residents’ groups, climate activists, Councillors, businesses, charities and community groups can come together to discuss solutions, consult residents and agree to cost-effective ways forward. It is certainly going to be much easier for HCC in places where there is a strong local consensus.
Active Travel is set to form a core component of our new Local Transport Plan, which HCC will be consulting on later this year. I am also delighted that the Government has allocated £2bn to Active Travel schemes and we will be bidding for a share of that pot.
If we make it safer and more pleasant for people to do so, people will start to enjoy Active Travel on a more regular basis. That has the potential to improve the health and wellbeing of our planet as well as the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our families.