Active Travel England Arrives!

Active Travel England was quietly formed earlier in year by the Department for Transport. It is the government’s new executive agency responsible for improving standards of cycling and walking infrastructure in England. Councils in England will now face scrutiny over their designs and installations of cycling infrastructure – so could this spell the end of dangerous and unappealing cycle infrastructure? (asks Rutger Clarke, CK Committee Member)

Our outgoing Prime Minister, despite his flaws, set in motion one of the biggest shake-ups in our government’s attitude towards cycling when he lead on the introduction of the widely celebrated ‘Gear Change’ document in 2020. Recall the early days of the pandemic, when the roads were far quieter than they might otherwise be. The precipitous drop in traffic danger led to startling uptick in journeys by bike, people who would not normally ride saw the risks fade away, and were suddenly taking to the streets in their droves for leisure and transport. That document set out ambitious targets to build on that moment, to boost cycling walking rates, with a target of a 50% modal shift to active travel by 2030. Sadly, the cycling boom was short lived, once mandatory lockdown ended, traffic levels increased and the hesitant cyclists were scared off their bikes again. Traffic is now at even worse levels than before the pandemic, but the ‘Gear Change’ legacy lives on.

As part of a package of measures designed to aid in the transition to Active Travel, the Department for Transport have since created Active Travel England, a new organisation with serious new powers to withhold central government funding from councils for infrastructure where they submit plans where they fail to adequately follow the latest design guidance on active travel infrastructure, as they are now required to do as part for Local Cycling & Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) commitments, or any other central government funded road schemes.

Few will have overlooked cycling Olympian, Chris Boardman, and his exceptional contributions to active travel in Manchester, when he led on the implementation of the Beelines cycling network as Transport Commissioner and Walking and Cycling Commissioner. Boardman has just been appointed to a key role as National Active Travel Commissioner for Active Travel England in June. Boardman says in order for “…cycling and walking to become the natural choice for shorter journeys, people must feel safe and the options must be easy.”

“Active Travel England aims to help local authorities across the country deliver that environment, so that people can get to schools, shops and workplaces under their own steam. That’s the kind of place people want to live and the freedoms they want for their children”

Danny Williams, CEO of Active Travel England added “I want to support councils to be bold and create an environment that is going to change people’s everyday lives for the better.”

Active Travel England is still being established. It has been putting in place a team that will be 100 people strong by this summer. Despite it having only operated in shadow form since January, it has already been working to support councils in following best practice for improving conditions for walking and cycling.

Brian Deegan was recently appointed Director of inspections at Active Travel England. Deegan worked closely with Boardman in Manchester and has pledged the organisation will be “more carrot, than stick”, but he makes no attempt to shy away from their duty, councils will face their funding for active travel withheld if the plans they submit for review fall short of the standards set out in the Local Transport Note (LTN) 1/20 guidance document. For those not familiar, LTN 1/20 sets out a comprehensive national standard for design of cycle infrastructure, akin to infrastructure standards seen in the great cycling cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Good implementation of the standards set by the LTN 1/20 will be a major factor in deciding which schemes are granted funding when it is coming from central government sources. Gear Change explicitly states that ‘to receive Government funding for local highways investment where the main element is not cycling or walking, there will be a presumption that schemes must deliver or improve cycling infrastructure to the standards in the Local Transport Note’.

Active Travel England will be under pressure from the government and DfT to ensure that central funding for infrastructure delivers on the previously stated ambition to reach that 50% modal shift, so it remains to be seen how funding will be allocated in an equitable manner to councils like Kirklees, who oversee a greater proportion of rural communities and do not have the same population density as more urbanised centres like London, Leeds or Manchester.

Despite these concerns Cycle Kirklees members warmly welcome the support that Active Travel England will be able to offer Kirklees Council and WYCA and has confidence that precious funding for cycle infrastructure can no longer be wasted on schemes that fail to enable active travel as a realistic and everyday alternative to personal motoring.