For active travel professionals, now is the time to shout – but smarter not louder
First published on TransportXtra on 1 July 2022
Now that we have a seat at the active travel table, we need to use it and that means more lobbying, more money, more data and case studies, more ambition, more training and more upskilling, says David Alderson is Director and Active Travel Lead, SYSTRA.
In England, we have the formation of Active Travel England, Gear Change and LTN 1/20 bedding in. We have a revised Manual for Streets and CWIS 2 incoming later this year, a large number of Emergency Active Travel and Streetspace (via TfL) schemes on the ground, an expanding number of School Streets and LTNs implemented, extensive new and high-quality cycle infrastructure becoming a common sight; and with most councils either having completed, or in the process of developing LCWIPs, with some already on version 2.
The SYSTRA active travel team will be at Cycle City Active City 2022 in Sheffield on 5 and 6 July
New and evolving datasets that allow us to demonstrate the benefits of active travel schemes. EqIAs (Equality Impact Assessments) that help to ensure we consider the needs of all, an updated Highway Code and a new ability to enforce moving traffic restrictions outside of London – alongside upcoming Social Prescribing studies providing links with our colleagues in public health and a mix of capital and revenue funding to back all of this up – are all coming to the fore.
“It must not be forgotten that trialling schemes with the ability to make changes relies on good quality data, as those without it will find themselves challenged when consulting to make the schemes permanent.”
You could say, as an industry of active travel professionals, we have never had it so good, but in truth we are only just getting started, and we have a long way to go – requiring long term and sustained investment. Now that we have a seat at the table, we need to use it – that means more lobbying, more money, more data and case studies, more ambition, more training and more upskilling.
However, whilst progress has been made, in many locations active travel schemes remain a political punch bag – all the more concerning when we have a climate emergency. We need more co-creation and collaboration locally to define schemes. We also need greater resolve and, where possible, a greater control of the narrative, presenting data-driven rationale for scheme delivery and turning active travel schemes into a business-as-usual activity.
This needs to be framed around people friendly streets for all and considering the needs and benefits of active travel schemes for all generations, with a freedom to move, play and access services in their local area.
We must all remember that social media is a fantastic medium, but it does not often equitably represent real life; the pro and, especially, anti-scheme tribes have increasingly grown in prominence and (notably during the pandemic) the vitriol has hit levels never seen before, with both groups increasingly shouting louder and louder into their own echo chambers.
However, it must be remembered that this noise is often created by a very small number of people and it doesn’t necessarily represent the view from the street. Where appointed, Cycling and Walking / Active Travel Commissioners can help cut through some of this using a range of traditional and new communication channels and, at a more local level, Local Authority appointed champions can also help (as long as they have senior level backing) – but perhaps most important is not forgetting the importance of getting out into the local community itself – backed up with data – to engage with them directly and bring them on the journey with you, this would ideally involve post core scheme health checks, where further tweaks can be made.
Having worked alongside many Officers with EATF and Streetspace schemes, our SYSTRA team always encourage everyone to take a step back and think just how much we have all achieved in the last couple of years; and whilst in many cases it has been a bruising experience, it has still been a very rewarding one. The feedback from working with Experimental Traffic Orders (ETOs) clearly shows a need for more engagement earlier in the process.
Nevertheless, we can’t lose sight of just how much has been achieved; alongside of closer working with the community and co-design of future schemes, we should also make sure we take on board the benefits and lessons of temporary schemes and the ETO process.
It must not be forgotten that trialling schemes with the ability to make changes relies on good quality data, as those without it will find themselves challenged when consulting to make the schemes permanent. We must all remember that, were we to follow traditional pre-COVID timelines, several schemes currently on the ground and now made-permanent (with data showing their extensive use) wouldn’t previously have made it past the starting blocks.
LTN 1/20 has already had a profound and positive impact, not just on new schemes, but also those currently in the planning and design phase. Transport authorities now have the teeth to push back, and they are doing so. Various schemes and plans have already been revisited to achieve compliance, though admittedly this has caused some head scratching when considering budgets already drafted, with inflation and supply chain challenges already pushing against financial constraints.
However, we still need some dots joined following the last couple of years and the intense pace of progress.
In looking to meet these standards, some degree of pragmatism has been lost, such as push back on new schemes joining currently non-compliant existing networks and pushing items such as new surfacing and lighting across multiple links, where such compliance would use the entirety of the budget and produce overengineered solutions.
With Local Transport Authorities at risk of losing funding if schemes are not delivered fully to standard, the process for divergence from standards is not a clear one and we hope these are the kind of cases where Active Travel England can provide the clarity points to join the dots and enable a stronger unified voice.
The levelling up agenda has seen several active travel-based schemes come forward, with many others currently under development for LUF2 bids.
Active travel schemes are seen as providing not only the strategic links to facilitate levelling up and access, but also a fantastic way to get new users engaging with the infrastructure; with AMAT benefits especially focussed on delivering health benefits of new users doing something vs. current users doing more.
A positive opportunity has also emerged to strongly join the capital and revenue funding, excitingly across multiple funding pots; including the upcoming Social Prescribing pilots, which provide direct links with our colleagues in Public Health and encouraging the use of active travel infrastructure, including LCWIP routes and mobility hubs.
My own personal journey provides an interesting lens of the industry. I started my active travel journey delivering personalised travel planning across multiple cities and working on behalf of National Highways (then Highways England) as Travel Plan Co-ordinator for several area-based travel plans, with two involving work with well-known shopping centres in the Sheffield City Region and the North East of England.
If I can cite one important change in the past fifteen years, it is the attitude and needs of the public. Engaging with thousands of residents and employees fifteen years ago Officers and site managers were ahead of their time, doing all they could – but despite many successes (outside of a few locations with a strong history of active travel) often stumbling at the adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
Fast forward to present day, where staff, residents and visitors now increasingly expect such services as direct/safe active travel routes for the end to end journey, good quality cycle storage, showers, user groups and salary sacrifice schemes; indeed taking London as an important example, such is the demand that new tenants are now requesting facilities that go beyond standards to meet the needs and expectations of their staff.
And here is another reason we need to shout – not necessarily louder, but smarter. Many may argue against using London as a proxy, but let’s take cycle parking as an example. Having supported TfL in the delivery of the cycling parking implementation plan, SYSTRA has seen first-hand the need for additional good-quality secure provision, with the lack of such provision a roadblock to cycling uptake.
This demand is demonstrated with cycles on balconies, inside flats, in communal areas – with the upshot of this demand being waiting lists for on-street cycle hangars that will take years to fulfil. An important lesson can be learned here and acted upon immediately: adopting higher cycle parking standards within the Local Plan process and ensuring these standards are not dropped, or the quality of what is delivered watered down to a point that people are not willing to use the facilities. This message needs to be pushed with the Local Plan Inspectors – if it is not, local authorities will find themselves in the same position in ten to fifteen years, with large waiting lists for hangars that could have been addressed by developers within new builds or with hubs covering multiple sites.
Active Travel England can again hopefully fight the corner on this.
As an industry we can all help. Again, looking back fifteen years ago, we had Highway Engineers who delivered active travel schemes. This is still the case now but, increasingly, we have a growing number of people who would personally tag themselves as Active Travel Engineers and Active Travel Professionals, with more and more junior staff wishing to participate in this part of the industry and to make their own real-world impact, to combat the climate emergency.
We need to empower these individuals, ensure our graduate training schemes are providing the relevant upskilling – whilst also pursuing more collaboration and sharing particular examples of best practices; our professional bodies all have an important role to play in these elements. LTN 1/20 means everyone needs to work to these standards and everyone needs to be cognisant of active travel requirements in developing their schemes.
With an increasing body of active travel professionals, this can only help in active travel elements becoming business as usual as part of any and all schemes, helping us with control of the narrative.
We now have the seat at the table, with improving standards, improved funding and an increasingly data-driven evidence base. But now is not the time to rest, but to use what we have learned – building on lessons from the past couple of years to shout smarter, and to take our work into business-as-usual practice.
The SYSTRA team is proud to be sponsoring Cycle City Active City in Sheffield this year. If you would like to arrange a meeting with the team or share your own thoughts on the evolution of our part of the industry, please contact email@example.com
David Alderson is Director and Active Travel Lead, SYSTRA