Recognising the benefits of active travel

Government Business (GB) talks to Mayor Dan Jarvis (DJ) about his vision for walking and cycling in the Sheffield City Region and how lockdown can help create long-lasting changes to our travel habits

GB: During lockdown we have seen increasing numbers walking, cycling and running for essential journeys and exercise. As restrictions ease and the threat levels drops, how important is it to sustain this rise in active travel?

DJ: One of the few positives to come out of the coronavirus lockdown was an uplift in cycling and walking. Across the UK, around 1.3 million people have bought a bike since the beginning of the crisis, around five per cent of the population. Here in South Yorkshire, more than 100,000 extra cyclists have taken to two wheels during the lockdown.

The benefits of active travel are huge. It improves our mental and physical health – and that of the planet. It can make transport affordable and more accessible, especially for the most deprived. And it improves our quality of life. One thing I will always remember from the lockdown was hearing the birds, rather than the sound of traffic. With less congestion and noise, our streets become safer and more pleasant places to live.

Going back to the status quo is just not good enough. Cycling and walking are already at the heart of my transport strategy, but the current crisis provides an opportunity to do much more. My £1.7 billion Renewal Action Plan sets out how we intend to transform South Yorkshire’s economy to make it stronger, greener and fairer for all, and as part of that I’ve asked the government for millions of pounds of investment to provide sustainable, affordable and safe means for people and goods to travel in South Yorkshire.

This includes implementing parts of our Active Travel Implementation Plan. Developed by my Active Travel Commissioner Dame Sarah Storey, local authorities and walking and cycling expert Brian Deegan, our plan sets out our plans to make South Yorkshire a place where people can safely walk or cycle for short everyday journeys, to work, school or the shops. The government says they share our vision – now the question is whether they will back it.

GB: More often than not, it is all too easy to make all journeys in a motor vehicle. What is the Sheffield region doing to reclaim space for people to move around by foot or bike?

DJ: For decades our towns and cities have been planned to benefit cars, but now is the time to prioritise people over vehicles. With social distancing rules set to be in place for some time, our public transport will continue to run at reduced capacity. And with shops, bars and restaurants limiting the number of customers, queues on our pavements are likely to be a common sight. We need to adapt or the result will be pollution and gridlock.

During the lockdown I secured £1.4 million of government funding for emergency active travel measures, including reallocating space to those on foot or bike. Doncaster town centre is now pedestrianised each weekend to keep shoppers safe. Sheffield has made changes to its city centre, pedestrianising popular independent shopping areas and creating safe places for those on bikes or on foot by restricting access for cars.

I am pleased local authorities are making space for active travel on our region’s roads but they must act with urgency to lock in the benefits where changes have been successful and ensure we do not return to the congested, polluted roads we had before the virus hit. To do that, councils need funding and support from central government. The government must follow through on its new enthusiasm for active travel if we are going to continue to protect the NHS and save lives in the long term.

GB: What role will cycling have in improving air quality in the wider South Yorkshire region?

DJ: In South Yorkshire I declared a climate emergency in November 2019, and we have ambitious goal to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040 – ten years before the target set by the government. This will only be achievable with real investment in walking and cycling.

Pre-Covid, 97 per cent of CO2 emissions in South Yorkshire’s transport sector came from road traffic, and around 40 per cent of journeys to work of 1km or less were made by car. Just two per cent of work commutes were made by bike.

Pollution levels decreased globally during the pandemic, and I do not want them to go back to the unacceptable levels of the past. The costs they impose on the economy, public health, and quality of life are just too high.

The current crisis provides a unique opportunity to create stronger, greener and fairer economy. That’s why Active travel is at the heart of our plan for economic renewal. High quality infrastructure which is accessible to all can generate a step change in how people travel. This includes people riding trikes or bikes adapted to their disability – another step to making travel more accessible. To achieve net zero targets in South Yorkshire car miles must be cut by a quarter.

People will travel by bike or on foot when they feel protected on the roads. My Active Travel Implementation Plan sets out how, by 2040, South Yorkshire will have a fully connected active travel network of more than 620 miles of routes, 800 safe crossings and 200 square miles of low traffic neighbourhoods, which restrict access for cars in favour of people on bikes or on foot.

By taking these measures, the number of people getting around by bike in South Yorkshire could increase by 350 per cent by 2040. That would mean far lower levels of pollution, safer streets and our towns and cities becoming more pleasant places to live.

GB: Your Active Travel Implementation Plan sets out how, by 2040, South Yorkshire will have a fully connected network of walking and cycling routes. Just how ambitious is this? And, if achievable, should other regions be taking note?

DJ: Ambition is vital if we are to build back better following the coronavirus crisis. The aim should not be to go back to the status quo, it should be to make this a moment of fundamental change for our region and our country.

This plan was developed in the first year of Dame Sarah Storey’s appointment as Active Travel Commissioner. Our local authorities have risen to the challenge and are committed to redistributing road space and enabling active travel in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

Our plan gives a clear goal – a network of walking and cycling routes linking up low traffic neighbourhoods. 620miles of accessible walking and cycling routes, 800 safe crossings for people travelling on foot or by bike, and nearly 200 square miles of low traffic neighbourhoods, which see streets transformed into places where you can relax and play safely.

We have already secured £166 million from the government’s Transforming Cities Fund, half of which will be spent on active travel. With a devolution deal now agreed for South Yorkshire, we have unlocked millions of pounds of investment for the region and the powers needed to make more decisions about South Yorkshire in South Yorkshire.

For this ambitious plan to be delivered in full we need sustained and guaranteed funding. Active travel should be part of an even wider strategy – a green new deal to transform and decarbonise our economy, create millions of new jobs, and counter the economic damage the pandemic has caused.

GB: We have seen that wider uptake of electric vehicles is hampered by a lack of joined-up infrastructure across the UK. What must policy makers do to ensure that cycling does not fall down the same hole?

DJ: Before coronavirus, Metro Mayors and their Active Travel Commissioners were working hard to keep walking and cycling on Government’s agenda. Dame Sarah and I worked with South Yorkshire’s local authorities to develop our ambitious Active Travel Implementation Plan in just 12 months. In Manchester, Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman are developing the Bee Network, and in London Sadiq Khan and Will Norman have created their own ‘Mini-Holland’ – a low traffic neighbourhood in Waltham Forest.

During the coronavirus crisis the government was quick to announce investment in emergency active travel measures but local authorities faced red tape and delays in accessing the funding. Regional and local leaders need the powers and resources from government to make decisions that will benefit the communities they serve. In turn, Metro Mayors must empower local communities to co-develop ambitious future plans for walking and cycling in their neighbourhood.  

The government should work with and through local administrations not just to tackle the immediate health crisis but to renew the economy in the face of the massive disruption coronavirus has caused. Government also needs to listen to the local expertise of Metro Mayors and other regional leaders and use this insight to drive national policy-making. This means giving Mayors a representative on COBRA.

As we emerge from the biggest public health crisis we have faced in generations and we are yet to feel the full economic impact of the virus. As the country adapt to a post-covid world we must not return to the status quo. We have an opportunity to build back better and generate economic renewal, not just recovery. And that includes how we travel.

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