Active travel means making journeys by physically active means, like walking or cycling. Given active travel is a devolved policy area, this briefing relates primarily to active travel policies in England.

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Active travel means making journeys by physically active means, like walking or cycling. The Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, published in 2017, is the Government’s strategy to promote walking and cycling in England. Given active travel is a devolved policy area, this briefing relates primarily to active travel policies in England.

Benefits of Active travel

Investing in active travel can bring environmental, health and economic benefits:

  • Promoting active travel can result in reduced emissions of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Particulate matter (PM) and CO2 helping to tackle climate change and improve air quality.
  • Active travel can contribute towards the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity for adults each week, which are hugely important for maintaining health.
  • Walking and cycling can contribute towards economic performance by reducing congestion, supporting local businesses and more. The benefit to cost ratio of investments in walking and cycling are estimated at 5.62:1 (or ‘very high’ value for money).

Facilitating active travel

Not all towns and cities are designed to be conducive to active travel. Some 62% of adults aged 18+ in England agreed that “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads” while busy roads may deter parents from letting their children walk to school. Thoughtful urban design, and creating integrated transport systems that promote walking and cycling, could encourage people to choose active means of travel. Such design decisions can impact different groups in different ways prioritising the needs of certain users over others.

Government policy

  • The Government published Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking for 2020-25 in July 2020. This plan was described by the Prime Minister as “most ambitious plans yet to boost cycling and walking”. Some of the key policies to deliver on this ambition are:
    • £2bn of ringfenced funding for walking and cycling overseen and administered by Active Travel England a new inspectorate, which will ensure projects meet new design standards, and be delivered on time.
    • The creation of a ‘national e-Bike programme’ – this will enable the elderly, or those who travel far to take to bikes as part of journeys.
    • A new approach on health will be piloted in selected places with poor health rates to encourage GPs to prescribe cycling, with patients able to access bikes through their local surgery.
    • Improvements to the National Cycle Network
    • Making streets safer by consulting to strengthen the Highway Code to better protect pedestrians and cyclists; improving legal protections for vulnerable road users; raising safety standards on lorries; and working with the police and retailers to tackle bike theft.
  • The Government published its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for 2016-20 in April 2017. This Strategy set out the Government’s “ambition that cycling and walking are the natural choices for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey.” The Strategy set an objective to double cycling rates and to increase the number of children aged 5 to 10 that usually walk to school from 49% to 55% by 2025. It also committed £316m of ringfenced for cycling and walking. A February 2020 review found almost £1.2bn had been spent and was is set to increase to £2.4bn in the period 2016-21 – almost double the original forecasts. The Strategy also introduced Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans (LCWIPs) which Local Authorities have been encouraged to develop to identify and prioritise investment for cycling and walking schemes (using the financial resources set out in the Strategy). The ambitions in the Strategy were broadly welcomed by walking and cycling charities.

Covid-19 green transport recovery

The covid-enforced lockdown across Great Britain has seen increased rates of walking and cycling. This pattern has been repeated worldwide with city authorities acting rapidly to expand space for cycling and walking.

In May 2020, the UK Government announced a £250 million emergency active travel fund, which is the “first stage of a £2 billion investment, and part of the £5 billion in new funding announced for cycling and buses in February.” the Government also published fast-tracked statutory guidance for local authorities to “make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians”.

Devolved active travel policies

The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have legislative competence for active travel. The Scottish Government has published its Long-Term Vision for Active Travel in Scotland 2030 and is investing £80m on active travel in 2019-20. The Welsh Government passed the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 published its Active Travel Action Plan for Wales in 2016.

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8615
  • Authors: David Hirst, Noel Dempsey
  • Topics: Transport

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Supporting documents