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The future is bright; the future is active travel

Active travel was already in the ascendant pre-pandemic, but COVID-19 might have turbocharged the shift towards more sustainable modes of urban mobility. Which cities and countries are best adapted to manage the trend?

Neil Webster, Director, Remit Consulting
17 June 2021

The growing preference among commuters for active travel solutions has been slowly reshaping commercial real estate for several years. The combined influence of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed appetites for meaningful climate action seem set to push it further up the agenda. Distributed working, the blend of home, office and on-the-move working, has become a widely accepted concept. It is now fully mainstream and resolutely here to stay. And various data show that active travel – particularly micro-mobility commuting – has surged during the pandemic, caused in part by widespread reluctance to use over-crowded public transport. The high street, already under pressure across much of the developed world, has also been heavily impacted over the past 18 months. We have yet to see how changing relationships with public transport might affect town and city centres as they emerge from lockdown. Both the means by which people travel into urban centres and what they do once there seem likely to fundamentally change. This is plate-tectonic stuff.

Remit Consulting’s ReTour series has taken us around the world, picking up on these themes. We started our journey thinking about the impact of cycling on the development of office facilities. We ended the series of webinars considering active travel and its role in real estate development more generally. The experience has reinforced the importance to cities, planners, developers and occupiers of targeted responses to this globally disruptive moment in personal mobility. So, what have we learned so far on our tour across the globe?

Well, as you would expect, appetites for active travel and responses to the climate emergency vary from country-to-country and city-to-city.

Japan is not far behind Northern Europe in terms of bicycles owned per capita. With 0.55 bikes per person (compared to the Netherlands’ 1.25), it ranks sixth in the league table of bicycle owning nations. Similarly, by bike journeys as a proportion of overall travel activity, Japan ranks third in the world, behind only the Netherlands and Denmark. Its great active travel culture means that parents are regularly seen cycling their “tanks” (sturdy electric bikes), often with children in tow, to and from offices, schools and shops.

Japan also has a more tolerant approach to active travellers: shared pedestrian and cycle paths are very common and are generally safe spaces for all users. That being said, there is an overall shortfall in active travel infrastructure when measured against demand. Furthermore, according to Chad Feyen of The Cycling Embassy of Japan, some employers do not provide insurance cover for bicycles and actively discourage their use among employees.

Japan is not far behind Northern Europe in terms of bicycles owned per capita. With 0.55 bikes per person (compared to the Netherlands’ 1.25), it ranks sixth in the league table of bicycle owning nations.

Australia, despite having a culture of outdoor activity, is not blessed with a significant number of commuting cyclists. As such, End of Trip (EOT) facilities are not as common as in the UK – though they tend to be of high-quality where found. Elsewhere, 6.3% of commuters in Portland, Oregon use bikes, making it the USA’s most enthusiastic cycling city.

We are also seeing a trend towards car-free cities. The London Mayor’s Transport Strategy sets out ambitious targets for reducing reliance on the private car. The aim is for 80% of trips to be made by public transport, walking and cycling by 2041, compared to 63% today. Some cities are going even further; Oslo, for instance, is targeting an almost total mode shift away from the private car.

Many currently regard Paris as the stand-out European city in this respect. There, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is aspiring to great things. Paris now has over 1,000 km of segregated cycling routes, having added 50km in recent months alone. Its cycle hire scheme has hit record numbers, and it is estimated that 15% of all trips in Paris are now made by bike.

All of the above developments have serious implications for real estate and infrastructure. ReTour has shown the myriad ways in which cities are including active travel in their climate adaptation plans. We must, though, factor in behavioural changes forced upon us by the pandemic. Yes, there are more people on bicycles now than ever before, but will this translate into more commuter cyclists after the lockdown is fully over? Observers in both Birmingham and Manchester, the UK’s second and third cities respectively, certainly think so. Studies there have shown a potential rise of between 20% and 50% in the number of cyclists on the roads. Should it transpire, this will present a number of challenges to real estate owners and managers. If commuters are really shifting from cars to bikes, the demand for EOT facilities will increase sharply. And further questions will be asked of city planners and highways agencies. On the evidence of our discussions, nobody has yet fully embraced this opportunity. Real estate professionals will certainly need to.

The European leg of ReTour, looking at the provision of workplace cycling and active travel facilities on the continent, takes place 30 June 2021

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Aurélien Collignon, Partner at FORE Partnership – the B Corp real estate investment firm – was a panellist on the UK leg of ReTour. His firm has a vision of a low carbon world in which property acts as a force for good. Mr Collignon calls on developers to rethink the importance of active travel and mobility.

“Delivering a set of facilities – showers, bike racks, lockers, stretching areas and maintenance stations – is not the goal in itself,” he says. “The outcome is to enable end users to make the right choice, the healthy choice, whether it is to cycle, run or e-scoot to work. The value lies in empowering businesses to cater for their workforce, allowing them to decide. This is not only the right thing to do for the people and for the planet but, more simplistically, a common-sense business decision ensuring resilience in any developer’s scheme.”

Delivering a set of facilities – showers, bike racks, lockers, stretching areas and maintenance stations – is not the goal in itself. The outcome is to enable end users to make the right choice, the healthy choice.

Aurélien Collignon
Partner, FORE Partnership

This is more than just a theory. At Remit Consulting, we’ve been contacted by major real estate developers who want to know how active travel can be designed into their developments. We are not talking here about a handful of cycle racks in one building. The conversations have covered cycle-ways, electric scooters and bikes, visitor parking, hire bikes, signage and mobility hubs. They go to the heart of placemaking in the post-pandemic era.

Back in 2017, we told the British Council of Offices that cycle parking in offices in the UK had reached a tipping point. We now believe that the influence of active travel on infrastructure and real estate has arrived at a similar point of critical mass.