England’s Department for Transport (DfT) will not achieve three of its four 2025 objectives for increasing active travel, says a critical report issued today by the National Audit Office (NAO), and progress on the fourth objective is uncertain.
The creation of Active Travel England “should improve the outlook for its longer-term ambitions,” said the NAO report, but after years of stop-start funding, the statutory targets to get more people walking and cycling are “in tatters,” said the CEO of walking and cycling charity Sustrans.
In March, the DfT announced a two-thirds cut to promised capital investment in walking and cycling.
It was very different three years ago. In 2020, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that England would be threaded with thousands of miles of curb-protected cycleways built to newly-published high standards.
He said the government’s Gear Change plan aimed to “kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring.”
DfT might have said back then that it wanted active travel to be the natural choice for shorter journeys in England by 2040 but, says the NAO report, this is unlikely to happen.
The report said that the DfT does not yet know if active travel schemes delivered by local authorities—which play a significant role in delivering interventions—have been of good enough quality and does not have a plan to track the benefits of its active travel investment.
According to NAO, more than half of local authorities have low capability and ambition to deliver active travel projects, which has affected the quality of active travel interventions delivered with government funding.
Last year DfT established Active Travel England to raise the design standards of active travel infrastructure, hold local authorities to account for their investments in active travel, provide advice on improving walking and cycling provision, and increase the skills and capacity of local authorities to deliver active travel schemes.
Active Travel England has made “good early progress” in tackling long-standing issues, said the NAO’s report, identifying areas that DfT and Active Travel England must continue to work on to maintain this momentum. These include developing longer-term stable funding for active travel, building greater capability in local authorities to deliver schemes, and making people feel safer while walking, wheeling, and cycling.
The NAO recommends that DfT review its objectives for 2025 and beyond and set Active Travel England stretching but achievable targets, taking account of progress to date and available funding, and that benefits of schemes are better tracked to inform future funding decisions.
NAO head Gareth Davies said: “Active travel schemes have the potential to deliver significant health and environmental benefits. However, DfT knows little about what has been achieved through its past spending and is not on track to achieve most of its objectives.”
According to campaign groups, DfT’s failings will leave a “legacy of poor air quality and reduced public health.”
Members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance (WACA)—including the campaign groups the Bikeability Trust, British Cycling, Cycling UK, Living Streets, Sustrans, and the Ramblers—welcomed the NAO’s report and issued a joint statement urging the government to publish its own evidence for the funding required to achieve its objectives for 2025 and 2030 targets.
Calling the NAO report “damning,” WACA said it came three months after the DfT slashed active travel funding.
The DfT’s target of 46% of urban journeys being walked, wheeled or cycled in the next two years is now impossible to reach, the report found, despite this being a cornerstone of the government’s Gear Change vision of 2020.
It also found that despite the targets to increase the numbers of people walking and cycling; and the percentage of children aged five to ten walking to school, all activity levels are now lower than when the objectives were set in 2017.
“The government has backpedalled on its promises, and is missing an easy win on the path to achieving Net Zero commitments, with proven benefits for public health,” said Sustrans CEO Xavier Brice.
He claimed that the DfT’s active travel objectives are now “in tatters.”
Cycling UK CEO Sarah Mitchell said: “The government hasn’t committed adequate funds to achieve its targets to increase walking and cycling.”
The government “should put their money where their mouth is,” said Stephen Edwards, CEO at Living Streets, a pedestrian body.
“Continuous, long-term investment and political will are needed to ensure targets are achieved,” he added.
In 2021, the U.K. government accepted the Climate Change Committee’s goal to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. Getting more people walking, cycling and wheeling—and out of cars—would help in achieving this target.
Also in 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) released a report bursting with existential horrors. Our planet is expected to hit the critical threshold of 1.5°C warming due to human-caused climate change within the next 20 years, whether or not greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, warned climate scientists.
Humanity’s role in driving climate change was “unequivocal,” said the report agreed by experts from 195 countries, who were not paid for their work.
“Climate change is not a problem of the future, it’s here and now, and affecting every region of the world,” stated Friederike Otto of the University of Oxford, one of the IPCC experts.
Cities that have designed for cars to exclude other modes will be required to reverse their priorities, if we’re to put climate change into reverse, say experts.
The U.K. government is still favoring motoring over active travel. In 2022 it greenlit the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme to build a new dual carriageway, costing more than $1 billion, just one of many road building schemes, many of which do not cater for pedestrians or cyclists.
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