Active travel – devolution makes a difference
Last Wednesday (4 October) we celebrated 10 years of the Active Travel Act in Wales. We ate cake, rode our bikes, applauded politicians and discussed how we could ensure that the Active Act Travel delivers on its vision of walking and cycling becoming the normal choice for shorter journeys.
Check out the Cycle Advocacy Network if you want to join us and help realise this vision.
The Active Travel Act was and remains ground breaking. It places a duty on every local authority to plan and prioritise improvements to walking and cycling routes, creating a network by which people of all ages and abilities can get about without having to always resort to using a car.
Many of us who work and campaign for active travel improvements do, however, feel a little frustrated as the promise of the act has not yet been delivered. Some local authorities are making more progress than others, with joined-up networks being seen here and there, but it’s patchy and progress seems ever so slow.
Given the role that cycling has to play in addressing the climate emergency, pollution, transport poverty, and pressures on our health services it should be something that every local authority is prioritising.
Wednesday for us was a call to action as well as a celebration. We currently have cross-party support for active travel in the Senedd and Lee Waters MS is a committed deputy minister who has driven through significant change. But politicians move on, priorities can change and as we’ve seen in England recently support for active travel can falter.
We have a crucial role to play in trying to ensure that politicians in Wales continue to do the right thing.
What better way to galvanise support than by starting the day with coffee and cake? We were joined by campaigners from across South Wales at the accessible cycling charity Pedal Power.
There was representation from established groups Cardiff Cycle City, Swansea Wheelrights and Carmarthenshire Cycling Forum, from relative newcomers but hard hitters, Vale Velo Ways and key campaigners from Newport. We were delighted that James who has just set up NPT Links, a group in Neath Port Talbot, was able to come along.
Cake was eaten by a lot of people who don’t describe themselves as campaigners, but who definitely come across as champions. They may just want to get about by bike but definitely also inspire others to do the same. They welcomed the opportunity to chat about the barriers we all face and how we can work together to address them.
To keep walking and cycling high up on the agenda of our local and national politicians we need them to understand what a good active travel network offers. It’s not just about the bike – it allows us better transport choices, cleaner air, nice places to live, work and play, easy access to shops and services and it enables our children to move around their communities without fear.
This is why it’s so important that we grow grass-roots support and develop a diverse network for people who feel able to advocate for cycling in all sorts of ways.
Suitably fuelled with pastries and caffeine it was time for the bike ride from Pedal Power to the Senedd.
Chris Boardman MBE joined a mass of riders including Senedd members, recumbent riders, local cycling groups, mums on cargo bikes and councillors, as we followed Hamish, a champion of bike buses and Cardiff Kidical Mass, along the Taff Trail to Cardiff Bay.
Politicians and panel
On arrival at the steps of the Senedd we heard members of all four political parties voice their support for active travel alongside Chris Boardman and Derek Walker, the future generations commissioner.
There was a round of applause for 20-mph roll-out which was loud and heartfelt. As active travellers we undoubtedly feel the benefits more acutely than maybe those who get about only by car.
Bikes locked up, we headed over to the Pierhead Building where a panel chaired by Huw Irranca-Davies MS, chair of the Cross-Party Group on the Active Travel Act, took questions on why active travel matters and how we can encourage more people to embrace it. We rounded off the day with two workshops.
Active travel in the absence of sight
My colleague Cherry attended the workshop run by RNIB Cymru and Guide Dogs Cymru. They explored the challenges faced when navigating the streets and the public transport system when you can’t see any clues around.
Tactile paving plays a crucial role, so treading on samples of blister and corduroy pavers – lining up your feet in the right direction to cross a road instead of wandering into the middle of a junction, for example – is a compelling way to grasp why consistent, properly installed underfoot messaging is vital to those who travel actively in the absence of sight.
The engaging and upbeat workshop highlighted the need for high standards of audibility as well as good infrastructure.
Combatants or critical friends?
In this workshop we explored the relationship between campaigners and councils and I felt some of the most important learning of the day was had. We provided a platform for those whose voices often aren’t heard by decision-makers and those responsible for delivering change. We discussed the language that is used: does the term active travel mean anything to people? What is a ‘purposeful journey’?
At Cycling UK we want people to join us as campaigners but many of those who are championing the cycle cause don’t see themselves as such. They don’t feel they have the expertise when the opposite is true: they know better than anyone the barriers they face and often have the solutions.
We considered the fact that local authority staff can be reluctant to engage with campaigners as we sometimes come across as too combatant, not understanding the challenges they face. In the end we agreed that by having us as critical friends we all gain and there’s a better chance of designing an active travel network that works for all.
Reflecting on things, it feels as though we could at last be on the brink of real change in Wales. The day before the Active Travel Act celebration I attended the Road Safety Conference, where unsurprisingly, the main topic of conversation was speed; the evidence in support of 20mph in built-up areas is clear.
It was also good to hear the clear statement on the link between active travel and road safety as that’s not a message that has always come through strongly in these circles. Earlier this year the deputy minister announced that new roads will only be built if other more sustainable travel options are not possible, and we have record levels of funding for active travel.
We still have a long way to go and political cycles and positioning being as it is we can’t be complacent. Now more than ever we need to strengthen the call for continued investment and commitment to creating an active travel network that works for all.