25 August 2020

Rachel Toms, an expert on the built environment and health, and board member for the London’s Child Obesity Taskforce, spells out the benefits of improving streets for active journeys like walking and cycling.

Transport in the Covid age

It’s summer 2020 and the pandemic has created the biggest disruption that most of us have ever been through. The economy has had a huge shock, close social contact has become ‘risky’, and many children have been out of school for months. We’ve also seen striking changes in how our streets are used across London.

During lockdown there was a 90% drop in public transport journeys in the capital, traffic seemed to evaporate, and people took to their bicycles like never before. Pop-up pavement extensions and cycle lanes appeared. As lockdown restrictions have eased, life has become more normal, and traffic and congestion have returned.

Of course, people have reacted differently to these changes. Many families were delighted to be able to cycle together, with less fear of traffic, and better air quality. Lots of people have enjoyed getting to know their local area better on foot. And people who’ve enjoyed travelling by car for years or decades have felt aggrieved when lanes of carriageway, parking spaces and hours of access have been reduced, and have expressed their thoughts vocally. They represent us all when they say that they want to get around easily, independently, and in safety and comfort.

What happens when the schools go back?

Around 1.1 million schoolchildren will go back to school in the capital in September, which means over 2 million school journeys a day. The Government advice for families with kids returning to school is that “Everyone needs to play their part in reducing the demand for public transport. If possible, you should look for alternative transport options, especially walking or cycling, particularly at peak times”. We do not have room in our streets for extra car journeys for the school run. When you ask children how they would like to get to school, many say they would prefer to cycle, but only a minority actually do. When we were making the video it was fascinating to hear so many kids say they enjoy cycling because they like the wind on their face. None of them said they like exhaust fumes on their face.

Increasing active journeys

The children we talked to love walking, scooting and cycling, but as we also see in the video, active journeys are not always convenient, safe or pleasant. And some journeys do need a motor vehicle, like when tradespeople are moving materials or equipment. However TfL’s analysis has found that across London, many journeys are actually quite short and do-able in another way: around a quarter of current car trips could be walked, and two thirds could be cycled. They found unmet potential for cycling growth in all parts of London, and particularly in outer London.

The bad news is that 61% of adult Brits feel it’s too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads, as uncovered by NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey. This is why there are far fewer journeys by bike than there could be and helps explain why so many people are choosing to drive when on paper they could walk.

The good news is that YouGov research found that British adults are overwhelmingly in favour of their local streets being redesigned and changed to encourage walking and cycling, with 6.5 people in favour for every 1 person against — although those against tend to be extremely vocal. When we talked to people who hadn’t been interviewed by YouGov — schoolchildren — we found that they were pretty keen on making changes in streets too.

Of course we must also pay careful attention to the many other functions that streets have to serve. With this in mind, the video summarises some of the other advantages of investing in active journeys, and here’s the background on each:

Less traffic

Traffic congestion costs London’s economy £9.5bn a year, according to TfL. The same journey on foot, by scooter or on a bike obviously takes up less space and rarely causes jams. This is why the new cycle routes linking Elephant & Castle with Holborn, Parliament Square with Tower Hill and Waterloo with Greenwich are moving 46% of the people in only 30% of the road space.

Better air quality

Most people are familiar with the problem of toxic air in London, and the life-long illnesses it can lead to, like asthma. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has reached the conclusion that significantly reducing air pollution “demands transformational change for our transport network and how we use it”. Moving to zero emissions vehicles will help, but only in terms of exhaust emissions, not in relation to the toxic particles from tyres, roads and brakes. Active journeys like walking, scooting and cycling are in another league for air quality compared with journeys by any type of car.

Less noise

Almost 2.4 million Londoners are exposed to road traffic noise levels that are above the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation, and TfL tell us that the largest cause of noise pollution in the capital is road traffic. No-one likes traffic noise and with good reason: it can adversely affect your sleep, your stress level and your mental health.

Better health

Not doing enough physical activity — which is the case for at least 40% of Londoners — puts people at much higher risk of many health problems, from fractures to depression and dementia, and from cancer to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The proportion of children in London who are overweight or obese is also at 40%, so there’s a pressing need to make it as safe, easy and fun as possible for our youngsters to be active outdoors. According to Public Health England, the best way to get the population moving is by building walking or cycling into people’s daily routines. And data from TfL shows that in areas where intensive street improvements have been made, the average resident now walks, scoots or cycles for over 40 minutes a week more than before — great news for their health and well-being.

Good for local trade

Many people can be concerned that making active journeys easier by reducing access to high streets and town centres for cars will harm the local economy. However, research by the Department for Transport and TfL shows that local businesses actually see shopping footfall increase by up to 40%, and retail sales by up to 30%, following walking and cycling improvements. There can also be savings for local businesses because using cycle freight is shown to save up to 64% on the cost of getting stock delivered. And more broadly, for every £1 spent on walking and cycling, there are £13 of benefits returned to the economy, leading the Government to conclude that this type of investment offers “high or very high value for money”.

More equitable

As a cheap and healthy way to get around, increasing active journeys is one of the Institute of Health Equity’s main recommendations for reducing the ‘health gap’ between rich and poor. Older people, children, people on lower incomes, and people with disabilities all benefit.

Tackle climate change

The environmental benefits of active journeys are obvious. In fact the Committee on Climate Change says that improving safety for cyclists should be one of the top actions for the country to recover from the pandemic and to move to a cleaner, net-zero emissions economy.

What’s not to like?

Over the last few decades, there have been many projects that have created some wonderful places for active journeys in London. On a practical level, there’s plenty of information online on how to do it effectively. This is fantastic, but the things that make active journeys less safe and less easy are still all around us — and that’s not okay.

It’s not okay if a seven-year-old needs to know what and where the blind spot of an HGV pulling away from the traffic lights is, to be able to cycle safely. It’s not okay when a teenager finds that her heart is pounding with fear each time she has to move out across one, two or three lanes of traffic for the right turns she needs to make to get to school by bike. Or for a nine-year-old to get a fright when vehicles pull into his path at 30mph, despite the bicycle symbols that have been painted onto the road. It’s not okay when a three-year-old and her dad need to cross the street and are shown a green man but have to weave their way between the bumpers and exhaust pipes of cars and vans that have stopped on the crossing — because of the design of the junction and signals, and because of what ‘feels right’ to motorists. It’s not okay if children can’t go to school their favourite way because there’s nowhere secure to store their bike in the street outside their flat or at school. And it’s not okay if the pavements are too narrow, or cluttered, or broken for it to be pleasant and safe for everyone when kids want to scoot to school or the shops.

Personally, I don’t think it’s okay if a public body celebrates a new kilometre-long cycle lane without acknowledging that at junctions, and in 90% of the streets in their area, most people still find it too dangerous and off-putting to cycle. Or without having a clear plan in place to upgrade the rest of the streets in their area so that as many people as possible can walk, scoot or cycle, wherever they live and wherever they need to get to. And to me, it’s not okay to shout about how much money has been spent on infrastructure for walking and cycling when far, far more is spent giving priority, safety and convenience to journeys by car, with all its disadvantages for congestion, air quality, noise, health, equity, climate change and space efficiency in our streets.

So what’s next?

We don’t know how this pandemic will unfold over the months and years ahead, or when a vaccine might come that would allow us to get back to pre-Covid ways of working, travelling and socialising. But we do know that our streets have to contribute to a green and healthy recovery. And every last penny that we invest in the physical fabric of this city will need to deliver the best possible results for Londoners. Improving streets to make active journeys safer and easier delivers the results, and in our video, the kids have told us how much they love them.

Progress has been made but there is much further to go, and many of us are in a position to help make it happen in the rest of our streets. So I call on the London boroughs and Transport for London: let’s do everything we can to make active journeys safer and easier in our streets.

Rachel Toms is a board member for the London Child Obesity Taskforce.

We want every child in London to grow up in a community that supports their health and weight.