How 'active' Is Active Travel?

Issue 95

Active travel, and active design, are subjects that have been around for a few years, but their influence on the way we deliver our schemes has grown significantly recently.

The key driver behind this movement is to increase activity, improve physical and mental wellbeing and ultimately reduce the burden on the NHS; but there are other benefits including reduction in carbon usage, increased air quality, improved connectivity between communities, and generally creating a nicer place to live.

As a Chartered Civil Engineer, I am acutely aware of the influence that I, and my colleagues, have in creating the infrastructure for the environment that we all live in. This is a privileged position, but also one that carries a massive responsibility. We have all seen the obvious results of bad design; dark underpasses and enclosed spaces that create security and safety issues; poor road layouts that lead to accidents; and the inclusion of materials in buildings that are not fit for purpose.

For the last 70 years or so, we have been responding to the growth in car ownership and their use by providing infrastructure that meets the needs of the increasing number of cars. But not only have we been making it easier to move around by car, we have, inadvertently, been making it more difficult to walk or cycle to the places we want to go to.

Across the country, 60% of car journeys are less than five miles, and in urban areas 40% are less than two miles. I am just as guilty of jumping in the car to “nip to the shops” as anybody. I drive to work everyday and sit behind a desk for 8 hours before going to the gym to get some exercise. What if I could safely cycle to where I wanted to go, secure my bike somewhere dry, and be able to get showered and changed before work? I could probably save myself the cost of the gym, get some fresh air, and take some time to clear my mind too.

The introduction of new Active Design standards and making Active Travel England into a statutory consultee in the planning process is the first step in a major change to the way we travel around and to our villages, towns, and cities. But it isn’t all about design, there needs to be a change in culture to make it work. I have seen it work in other countries, but where it does work, not only is the infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians better, there is more respect between travellers too.

Lynas Engineers is an engineering design consultancy that focuses on the design of schemes that provide transport infrastructure, so this is a major issue for us, and one which we are embracing. Incorporating facilities for pedestrians, cyclists and disabled users is a primary consideration for the majority of our projects. Whether cycleways and footways in new residential sites; providing safe and accessible crossing points on existing junctions; or working with local authorities to develop active travel routes within the existing highway corridor – it is at the heart of how we work.

But these schemes cannot be built in isolation. There needs to be a wider consideration of connectivity between communities and to amenities; there is no advantage in providing a brand new residential estate with lots of space for cyclists and pedestrians if they then need to share busy road space with HGVs and cars to be able to get to the nearest shops, school or train station. Perhaps this is where Active Travel England can influence the planning process and ensure that wider benefits are realised, but it is up to local authorities to ensure that developer funding is actually spent on delivering these improvements.

The announcement of £200 million in funding for active travel schemes earlier this year is very welcome, but it needs to spent in the right places and on the right schemes. We are obviously constrained by space, especially in built-up areas, but if we want to provide effective, usable infrastructure we need to consider the right solution for the right location. We’ve all seen the photos of a 3m long cycle lane that ends at a brick wall – these examples do nothing to improve the opinion that we don’t take cycling seriously in the UK.

We have started to see active travel funding being better spent in the northeast – with some interesting and expansive schemes being developed. Whilst the team at Lynas Engineers are excited to be developing some with local authorities – there is still work to be done in changing the shift towards full and proper integration in other areas too. Whilst the desire may be there to improve active travel, until walking or cycling is seen as a logical, viable, and desirable alternative to using private vehicles, there is still work to be done.

Rob Lynas l

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