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What does government pledge of £2bn for active travel actually mean for cycling?

An emergency fund of £250m has been announced to improve active travel options with immediate effect

Joe Robinson
11 May 2020

On Saturday 9th May, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a £2 billion package ‘to create a new era of cycling and walking’ in the UK amid the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Shapps revealed plans to put active travel at the centre of the UK Government’s transport strategy with short and long term plans to increase journeys by bicycle and on foot - including an emergency £250 million travel fund.

The government confirmed that ‘pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors’ will be at the centre of this emergency fund with work having already begun across the UK.

The £250 million will also form part of the larger £2 billion investment into active travel which aims to ‘encourage more people to choose alternatives to public transport when they need to travel, making healthier habits easier and helping make sure the road, bus and rail networks are ready to respond to future increases in demand.’

However, it is important to note that this £2 billion investment is not new money, rather the first wave of a wider £5 billion investment in cycling and bus travel announced by the Conservative Party in February.

The bringing forward of plans coincides with an effort from the government to keep numbers on public transport and those using private cars down despite announcing that, as of this week, workers who cannot work from home will be encouraged to return to work.

The wider aim is to have walking and cycling levels doubled by 2025.

The main points revealed by Schapps over the weekend within the £2bn fund:

  • Emergency active travel investment of £250 million for pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors to be implemented in England with immediate effect.
  • Government to work directly with Greater Manchester on developing 150 miles of protected cycle lanes and to develop a ‘bike tube map’ with Transport of London to offer an alternative to the Underground system.
  • Fast-tracked statutory guidance from central government to local councils instructing them to reallocate road space for significantly-increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians, including the conversion of some streets to ‘bus and bike-only lanes’. There will also be pressure to prevent the use of commuting ‘rat runs’.
  • Vouchers for bicycle repairs to encourage people to use old bikes that could be used for transport as well as improvements to facilities for repairing bikes.
  • Trials of rental e-scooters will be brought forward to increase green transport options in busy cities.
  • The development of smart apps to advise commuters on transport capacities.

Schapps also confirmed that an updated Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy would be released this summer, with more in-depth measures to hit that target of doubling cycling and walking numbers by 2025.

Some parts of that strategy have already been revealed including the creation of a national cycling and walking commissioner and inspectorate, higher standards of permanent infrastructure across England, allowing GPs to prescribe cycling and exercise, and developing long-term budgets for cycling and walking akin to roads.

‘During this crisis, millions of people have discovered cycling - whether for exercise or as a means of safe, socially-distanced transport. While there is no change to the “stay at home” message today [this has since been altered to “Stay Alert”], when the country does get back to work we need those people to stay on their bikes and be joined by many more,’ Schapps said in his statement.

‘Otherwise, with public transport’s capacity severely restricted at this time, our trains and buses could become overcrowded and our roads gridlocked – holding up emergency services, critical workers and vital supplies.

‘We know cars will continue to remain vital for many, but as we look to the future we must build a better country with greener travel habits, cleaner air and healthier communities.’

In addition to this, Schapps announced a new campaign alongside professional cycling outfit Team Ineos - #getpedalling - to encourage those new to bike riding.

‘If ever there was a good time to get on your bike, it’s now,’ said Team Ineos manager Sir Dave Brailsford.

‘You will be helping take pressure off public transport. You will be looking after your health. You will be looking after the health of others and you will be helping the environment. Let’s all get pedalling and help Britain on the road to recovery.’

As a response to the announcements from the government, CEO of Sustrans Xavier Bruce welcomed the investment and underlined the wider impact these infrastructure updates could have.

‘We welcome the UK Government’s immediate commitment of £250 million for new pop-up protected cycle lanes, the widening of footways and to support car-free, cycling, bus and walking streets to allow for social distancing as we begin to move out of lockdown,’ Bruce explained.

‘Public transport systems are vital but will not be able to operate at full capacity for some time due to social distancing. Our towns and cities can’t cope with the increased private car journeys this could cause. Instead, we must increase walking and cycling. This won’t just help with social distancing. This will help with tackling the climate crisis, air pollution and public health, decreasing the burden on our NHS.

‘This funding is a first step that allows more local authorities to put temporary measures in place so more people can move around safely and actively as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

‘The full £2 billion announced to increase walking and cycling in the longer-term, with a plan to support this funding expected in June, is the next step in helping to create real long-term change in the way we move around our towns and cities and should also be used to help support new and returning cyclists get used to riding again.’

What do these announcements actually mean?

The government policies announced over the weekend are targeted towards getting more people riding bicycles for transport, rather than just for sport or leisure.

While an increase of those cycling to work and for general transport will undoubtedly see an increase in those then cycling as a hobby, these latest rounds of investments will have little effect on those riding road bikes on the weekend through England’s many country lanes.

This is not a bad thing, mind, as this is about making large, generational changes to how we travel as a society, hopefully contributing to a greener planet, less congested public transport systems and a more active nation. As well as safer streets thanks to fewer cars.

Since the imposed social lockdown introduced in March to help combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, pollution levels have plummeted by 60% in areas as major cities like London reveal the cleanest air levels for decades. With people working from home, or unfortunately experiencing furloughing, the lungs of some of the biggest urban areas of the UK have begun to recover.

However, with normality needing to be restored at some point, ministers asking certain industries to return to work and no vaccine for the virus meaning social distancing will remain, this sudden push towards active travel is being considered as the answer, a fix towards preventing a second peak while getting the economy ‘moving’ and likely the centre of all government plans.

So, by the nature of having the biggest issues with road congestion and public transport overcrowding, the likes of London and Manchester will be at the heart of the emergency travel fund.

The money for the wider pavements, the segregated cycle lanes, the safer junctions will be spent outside King’s Cross rather than the A-roads through Kettering or Kidderminster because, ultimately, that’s where change will be most keenly felt.

In smaller towns, while some may introduce emergency bike lanes, the likelihood is that change will be most likely felt by the potential conversion of some roads to ‘bike and bus-only lanes’, the introduction of vouchers for bicycle repairs and the longer-term plans that target 2025.

And as for those who already cycle, mainly for sport and leisure, immediate changes are likely to go unnoticed unless you live in the aforementioned busy, urban areas.

However, what could be an effect of these announcements is a societal shift to how cycling is perceived with real potential for better safety on the roads and a wider acceptance that the road is for more than just the motor vehicle minority.

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