With rising energy bills, increasing mortgage rates, high rent and inflation, families across the country are worried about cost of living pressures. As local councillors, we need to look at how we can do our bit to help ease pressures on household budgets, while the government shields people from the energy crisis and stabilises the economy. One small way we can help, which can make a big difference to people’s quality of life and transport costs, is by improving active travel to provide more residents with cheap, reliable, and easy ways to get around.
Walking, cycling, and scooting are the cheapest ways to get around. With proper community consultation, active travel schemes can suit residents’ needs. They can also be delivered significantly faster and at a lower cost than other public transport infrastructure. Those who frequently use active travel spend less to get around, save time by avoiding traffic jams, and are shielded from volatile petrol and diesel costs. Active travel also has considerable health benefits, from keeping fit, to improving your mental well-being.
We are already seeing demand for this common-sense solution. With oil prices rocketing, more people are getting on their bikes to get around, and as a result, the number of miles cycled in the last few months is up 54 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. More people are also choosing to work flexibly or from home, meaning that instead of long commutes, they are staying in their communities where short journeys can more easily be made by bike or on foot.
Of course, not all journeys can be done on bike or foot, and many rural areas will still rely on their cars to get to work or the shops. In these places, local authorities can help prepare the way for electric vehicles, which are steadily falling in price and are already cheaper to run than their petrol and diesel equivalents, with public charging point infrastructure. Residents will always use a variety of transport modes – no one is solely a cyclist, pedestrian, rail user, or motorist. Making active travel easier is about expanding people’s transport choices, and giving them cheaper, healthier options. Nevertheless, with 48 per cent of the lowest income households and 77 per cent of jobseekers outside of London without access to a private vehicle, and 40 per cent of journeys in urban areas two miles or under, active travel must be part of any long-term cost of living strategy.
Perhaps uniquely, active travel does not need fancy technological advances; it just needs to become more accessible and safe so anybody who chooses to can get around cheaply and efficiently. If done with proper public consultation, local authorities are well-placed to give people more cheap and reliable active travel choices. But we need government support to deliver the simple measures needed to make space for pedestrians and cyclists. For this reason, it’s critical that we keep the £2 billion set out by the Department of Transport in 2020 for active travel. Features like segregated cycle lanes, e-bikes, bike-ability training schemes, and safe storage will help those who were previously unsure get out walking and cycling.
In Worcestershire, where I am the Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, the fund has already done a lot of good. The first tranche of funding delivered cycle parking improvements in Evesham, waymarking and lining works to improve a route between Redditch and Bromsgrove, a surfaced active travel link from Kidderminster to join up with Worcester’s historic canal towpaths, and covered cycle storage at our new Worcestershire Parkway rail station. With two-thirds of adults reporting that safety is the main barrier stopping them from using active travel to get around, these tweaks are helping to reduce the threat from traffic to cyclists and pedestrians. But we want to go further than funds have so far allowed us to, and do more to implement safer separation between walkers/cyclists and traffic.
Our Conservative colleagues around the country are also delivering schemes to help residents see active travel as an attractive option. Suffolk County Council’s Local Walking and Cycling Infrastructure plan sets out how they’ll install additional cycle lanes, bike storage, and even repair workshops, to make active travel less daunting. Lancashire County Council has also been able to use the fund to build cycle storage, create new level crossings, and put in planters to create more liveable neighbourhoods. We are all doing whatever we can.
But there is still lots more we can do. For instance, we should invigorate e-bike usage. With a speed of 15.5mph, an e-bike is a simple solution for those concerned with their cycling proficiency or looking to cycle longer distances and get around without getting tired or sweaty with only mild exertion. Transport for the West Midlands already provides 150 e-bikes across selected areas in our region for hire for as little as 25p to unlock, but we need this cheap, efficient, and reliable form of transport to be more readily available. E-bikes will make cycling an option for those living on a hill or a few miles between their home and the local high street or train station. That is why I have called on the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to help me roll out the Beryl Bikes scheme to the towns surrounding Birmingham in Worcestershire. This would improve active travel corridors, such as the A38 which runs all the way from Worcester, through Bromsgrove and into the centre of Birmingham.
Helping more residents travel by foot or bike doesn’t mean making journeys by car more difficult. In fact, by giving people greater transport options beyond the car with properly consulted and considered schemes, we can tackle congestion so those who still need to drive can. Local authorities know their areas so they can get the balance right, but we need continued support from the government to expand people’s travelling choices. I hope ministers will ensure that enabling cheap reliable and healthy active travel remains part of the government’s plans to lower the cost of living. First published by ConservativeHome. Cllr Mike Rouse is a member of CEN’s Councillor Network. He is also Worcestershire County Council’s Cabinet Member with Responsibility for Highways and Transport.