Active travel provides a key to UK health

Friday 3 August 2018

London risks bequeathing its ‘bad habits’ of a lack of exercise on the next generation – and the resultant steep cost on the nation’s coffers - if it fails to urgently sort out improvements to its cycling and walking infrastructure.

That was the view of Deputy Mayor for Transport Heidi Alexander as she gave her inaugural speech in the role at the NLA’s Active Travel Summit.

‘Our city is slowly being choked by dirty air, and we don’t do enough exercise’, she told the audience; a mixture of architects, developers, engineers and transport consultants. ‘We need to sort this out urgently, and our ambition now has to be backed up by practical action.’

Alexander said urgent steps should be taken to improve road safety for cyclists in the wake of six cyclists – one every two weeks – dying on London’s roads since May. Against this background, and of the launch of the GLA’s Vision Zero report last year, Alexander said it was therefore a ‘disgrace’ that Westminster City Council took legal action to stop TfL from starting Cycle Superhighway 11, aimed at reducing danger to cyclists outside Swiss Cottage station. Cycle superhighways 3 and 6 had seen an uplift of 54% and 32% in their use respectively, and new cycle routes, ‘no matter what they are called, are equally important’. But Outer London has been the ‘poor relation’ to London’s cycling boom, and if the capital is to get to a position where 80% of journeys are made by means other than the car, then ‘the outer London challenge needs to be addressed’, said Alexander. ‘We need to put people and not vehicles at the heart of the planning process’, she said. ‘We know what the challenge is, we now have to get on and do it.’

During questions, Alexander said that electric bikes and dockless hiring systems are part of the solution but safety comes first, and that, given a ‘fair wind’, it should be possible to triple the amount of protected space for cyclists in London.

Esther Kurland, head of urban design, city planning at Transport for London showed the work being done on liveable neighbourhoods, with seven schemes with funding at present including Crouch End and West Ealing. Each scheme reponds to its own area ‘USP” – in these cases being ‘hilly and big’ and therefore possibly with e-bikes possibly making a difference and making the most of the Elizabeth Line, respectively. Over in Barking, said Sarah McCready, project lead of the Healthy New Towns initiative there, it was about effective consultation, especially with a community that feels ‘quite forgotten and excluded from the rest of London’. The team is producing radio memories of residents’ connections with the water to support its plans for a floating lido in the borough, for instance.

Walking, cycling and London’s public realm were the focus for Ellen Hadden and Debroah Saunt from DSDHA, and the way that the uses of, and activity in, streets change over the course of the day. But Iain Simmons, assistant director (City Transportation at the Department of the Built Environment at the City of London Corporation said that the City was not ready for the influx of people the Elizabeth Line will bring, especially as there is already ‘not enough room for people on foot’. ‘Are we ready for Crossrail One? No’, said Simmons. The mayor’s transport strategy, however, was ‘magical’ and something Simmons had waited a career for, while ongoing work at Bank Junction had provided a ‘beacon’ for change.

The afternoon session included a look at Velocity, the competition-winning idea to create a new kind of village in the Cambridge/Oxford corridor. Mikhail Riches director Annalie Riches said the scheme’s principles could be applied across England, where villages are ‘dying’, but the concept will require a change in mindset over car usage. Cycling Score managing director David Farr, meanwhile, looked at the way that cycling facilities have risen up the wish-list for office occupiers – it is now the third most desirable aspect after the price of rent and a building’s internet activity. 

Brompton Bicycle managing director William Butler-Adams, however, said there was perhaps too much emphasis in regulations and the London Plan on the need for showers and storage facilities, and that cycle storage ‘is not the solution’, when a fold-up bike or Brompton hire bike could be part of the answer. ‘I believe we are putting 50% storage in new builds when cycle use is at 5%’, he said. Butler-Adams added that, where once cycling was about reducing greenhouse gases, and now air pollution, in fact there was a far more urgent and pervasive symptom. ‘I do believe the biggest cost to our society is our citizens’ health’, said Butler-Adams. ‘We have a burden we simply can’t afford’. A new breed of electric scooter hire firms coming to the market including Lime and Bird were ‘bad news’ too if they meant people walked less.

Other speakers included Dr Rachel Aldred on the now proven, ‘really strong’ impact of mini Hollands on active travel, particularly for ‘high dose areas’ and even after only one year of figures. There was further evidence of this from presentations on real examples at Waltham Forest and Kingston by Gareth Morris, director of what if projects and Sarah Wigglesworth of SWARCH. 

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