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Natural Environment

You Asked Us: Can cities do more to promote active travel?

As the COVID-19 recession bites, can cities really afford to build active travel infrastructure? And isn't cycling just a bit elitist? Following last month's webinar Walk, run, cycle: Can cities do more to promote active travel? you asked our expert panel for their thoughts. Here, they respond.

World Built Environment Forum
3 December 2020

Our expert panel:

Clotilde Imbert, Director – France, Copenhagenize Design Co.

Neil Webster, CEO, Cyclo Consulting

Most of the cities cited as exemplars during the recent webinar were capital cities (London, Paris, Copenhagen, Seoul) – wealthier, better resourced, and often with better functioning local governments. Is there a danger that Tier 2 and 3 cities will get left behind on active travel and liveability, as they have been in so many other respects? How can this be prevented?

Neil Webster: This is true to an extent, but during the webinar we also referenced Portland (Oregon), Manchester, Seville and Kyoto – none of which are capitals. There are also initiatives such as the Cambridge/Oxford ARC, which aim to join up and expand smaller settlements by active travel so that journeys are shorter and greener.

In some cases, it is easier for smaller towns and cities to bring about more active travel as they are closer to their citizens in terms of governance. Political will is more important than population size. Nor does improved infrastructure need to be expensive – as has been demonstrated in Manchester.

Walk, run cycle: Can cities do more to promote active travel

European Union estimates show that a 33% reduction in the number of car journeys  taken in the continent’s cities would significantly reduce harmful emissions, noise pollution and congestions, and increase liveability. Widespread shift to active travel would also have far ranging benefits for ten physical and mental health of citizens. Nonetheless, estimates suggest only 6% of total miles travelled through the world’s cities per year are completed by cyclists. The city remains dominated by the automobile.

How can city leaders encourage a modal shift from cars to bikes? What can be learned from the world’s most walkable, runnable and cyclable cities? What is the likely cost of developing “active travel-friendly” city infrastructure, and how can investors be encouraged into the space?

Road bikes are very expensive and beyond the means of many ordinary people. Isn’t the biggest problem that cycling is elitist?

Clotilde Imbert: Cycling is not elitist. Quite the contrary, a city bicycle – useful for a daily commute – is a lot cheaper than a car. Maintenance costs per-year are negligible. But, in European cities, the bicycle seems elitist because up until now bicycle infrastructure has been built primarily in the city-centre, where people tend to be wealthier. City quarters which are home to people with fewer means have long suffered from lack of investment in active travel infrastructure. However, these communities tend to rely on public transit and often work hours where services are less frequent. They would, therefore, have a lot to gain from adopting a cheap and flexible mode of transport, such as the bicycle. That’s why we need protected bicycle networks in all cities, and at city-wide scale. The examples of Amsterdam and Copenhagen show that, when the correct infrastructure is built for all ages and abilities, cycling ceases to be a marker of social standing. It becomes a mainstream mode of transportation, accessible to everyone.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen show that, when the correct infrastructure is built for all ages and abilities, cycling ceases to be a marker of social standing. It becomes a mainstream mode of transportation, accessible to everyone.

Putting the necessary infrastructure in place to support a largescale transition to active travel will not be cheap. It also seems likely that one legacy of COVID-19 will be a mass shift away from public transport, which could further stretch public funds. Do the panel envisage a point at which cyclists will be charged to use the roads? Would they support this measure if it could be demonstrated that funds raised would be suitably reinvested?

NW: This is a huge question which picks up several strands. Active travel infrastructure needn’t be expensive. Road user charging should reflect climate impact. Roads and cycle paths aren’t solely used by private cars and cyclists. The current UK excise duty for cars is a charge on theoretical emissions, but even electric cars pollute the atmosphere. A road user charging model which is directly related to economic and social costs may ironically result in a negative charge to active travellers.

For example the 2018 paper, The social cost of automobility, cycling and walking in the European Union (Gössling, S., Choi, A., Dekker, K. and Metzler, D.) suggests that each kilometre driven by car incurs an external cost of €0.11. Meanwhile each kilometre cycled or walked represents a benefit of €0.18 and €0.37 per kilometre, respectively.