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Active travel in England suffering from chronic underfunding, says report

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research paints a bleak picture of the current state of active travel in England, with a co-author of the report observing that cycling peaked in the UK 75 years ago.

It calls on the next government to arrest the decline in investment on active travel infrastructure, which currently stands at just 2% of the total transport budget.

While London spends relatively generously in this respect (the annual equivalent of £24 per head between 2016 and 2021), the rest of the country lags behind, spending a figure closer to £10. This compares with a spend of £148 per person per year on roads.

Despite London’s comparative commitment to active travel, even their spend is considered insufficient to to get the infrastructure back where it should be. Instead, the report concludes, investment of £35 per head per year for a decade is needed.

However, the report observes we seem to be heading in entirely the wrong direction: ‘In March 2023, the already low level of active travel funding was cut by £233 million and the rhetoric surrounding the new ‘plan for drivers’ has provided a clear signal that promoting active travel is no longer considered the priority it once was.’

In addition to the health benefits of increased cycling and walking versus less driving, active travel also offers economic benefits, particularly for the estimated £5m people in transport poverty, for whom a large proportion of income is spent on running a car.

Additionally, replacing short car journeys with walking and wheeling would save the NHS around £17 billion over 20 years through improved health. 8,300 premature deaths would also be saved through improved air quality.

The report concludes with recommendations for new investment, including at least 25,000 miles of new, protected cycle paths and investing a further £15 per person per year for a decade on behavioural changes, such as providing training for cyclists, offering incentives to increase access to bicycles, and loans of e-bikes

Maya Singer Hobbs, senior research fellow at IPPR, said: ‘Cycling in the UK peaked 75 years ago. Since then, UK government policy has locked in car dependency, making people walk wary and cycle cautious, at the expense of our health, our environment and our economy.

‘Investment in active travel infrastructure to get more people walking and wheeling is crucial to cutting emissions and improving growth.’

Stephen Frost, principal research fellow at IPPR, added: ‘This research reveals what could be achieved if all the warm words from government about the value of walking, wheeling and cycling were matched with investment. Diverting just a small percentage of the billions invested by the government in car travel could make our streets safer for everyone travelling under their own steam.

‘Children could move around more freely, we’d all have better access to green space and nature, people would be healthier and less isolated and local high streets could be thriving. All this while also moving us closer to achieving the UK’s legally-binding climate commitments. Active travel is among the safest investments in transport – a future UK government must put its money in the right place.’


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