Despite the suffering, Covid-19 has been a wake-up call. Reduced motor traffic has helped us rediscover the convenience, pleasure and health benefits of walking and cycling to work, shops, and other essential activities, as well as to parks and the countryside.
We have glimpsed a different way of life, free from car-dependency with its congestion, noise, pollution, environmental damage, injuries, fatalities, inactivity-related illnesses, and its erosion of community and neighbourliness; not to mention the £4,500 yearly cost of owning a fast-wasting asset which spends 95% of its existence parked, usually in public space.
All we need is safe, attractive and convenient alternatives to the motor car, and people will use them. For 40 years we have been talking about building more pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, but now Covid has opened our eyes. Public support is strong. Never has the need for action been clearer.
All we lack is the political will to make this a clear spending priority. To date our disjointed scraps of permanent walking/cycling infrastructure have been financed piecemeal by bits of section 106 funding, money remaining from abandoned roundabout plans, plus the odd LEP grant. This is no way to provide the steady, long-term investment needed to change the travel habits of a nation and make our villages, towns and cities quieter, healthier and more welcoming.
Contrast the Netherlands where they’ve built a dense network of cycleways and footpaths, and plentiful bike storage. There, 50% of schoolchildren cycle to school and 30% of all journeys are by bike (a mere 2% in Britain, including in flat areas). Britain has made no such national investment, even though we’ve seen how examples of limited cycling infrastructure in Cambridge, London, and York have hugely increased bicycling as a way of getting to lectures, work, the station and the gym.
In one small area of Britain, however, we are truly doing it right – the renowned 20 mph-limited Waltham Forest ‘mini-Holland’ with its low traffic neighbourhoods, segregated cycleways and plentiful bike storage, all planned as a whole. The cost of transforming the entire borough to Dutch standards will be about £175m, less than 6 miles of motorway and just £632/resident. Still only 25% complete, it has already resulted in a 15-20% ‘modal shift’ from car to walking and cycling, a 90% reduction in illegal air pollution and a renaissance of local shopping and neighbourliness.
Make the same £632 per capita investment for all 56m urban-dwelling UK citizens over the next 20 years and we will transform British towns and cities to a similar standard for less than £36bn, about 10% of our expenditure on tobacco during the same period, assuming current rates.
And here’s how we can find £36bn and a whole lot more in the next two decades without a penny of extra spending.
Making a start – a down payment on change
Britain is deeply ambivalent about its transport priorities. The government’s recently published £27.4bn ‘2020-2025 Road Investment Strategy 2’ allocates £14bn for new roads and enhancements. Yet the same government department has recently published ‘Decarbonising Transport Plan’ and ’Gear Change‘, which advocate reductions in car usage and ‘making public transport and active travel the natural first choice for daily activities’. These recommendations make sense because all over the world we see that building roads to expand capacity leads only to more cars and increased congestion. In this changing political climate now is the time boldly to re-allocate these £14bn to pedestrian/cycling infrastructure and make a wholehearted commitment to a healthier approach.
The rest of the money
Where will additional funding come from, and can we afford it? Surely we can. Consider the costs of not doing it. Let’s look at three examples of the costs to society of our current car-dependent lifestyle.
Congestion costs 6.9bn/year (INRIX, 2020) with the average motorist spending 115 hours/year in traffic jams. 42% of trips are just 1-2 miles, yet 62% of them are by car. As our build-out of walking and cycling infrastructure starts to change people’s travel choices, removing many of these car journeys would progressively reduce congestion costs over the next 20 years.
Then let’s look at the £10bn annual costs of fatalities and serious injuries from collisions (DfT). Lowering vehicle numbers and speeds (20mph in residential areas) will pay dividends not only in lives saved but in costs reduced.
We also know that healthcare costs could be greatly lowered by a more active lifestyle. One-third of children and two-thirds of adults are overweight (Public Health England Obesity Statistics February 2021). The yearly cost to the NHS of obesity alone is £7bn and to the wider society £27bn, total £34bn. Just 40 minutes a day of walking or cycling greatly reduces susceptibility to inactivity-related illnesses.
Over the next 20 years reducing these total costs of £1.018tn by just 10% – a very conservative estimate and an eminently achievable goal – would yield savings of £101.8bn.
The result – a better future
Building out the Waltham Forest-style project to the whole of Britain for £36bn will bring about dramatic improvements to our lives. And that might only be a beginning. The £101.8bn in savings – and it could be considerably more – provides a funding stream for an even more comprehensive re-imagining of our national transport priorities, including linking up the country with a network of cycle routes and footpaths as in the Netherlands, and investing in bike-carrying low-carbon buses and trains to enable integrated long-distance non-car journeys.
This vision is no pipedream but already achieved in the Netherlands. Embracing this more holistic vision will lead us fully to appreciate our uniquely beautiful countryside and historic villages and towns, hear the birds sing and breathe in fresh air as in the May 2020 lockdown, achieve our 2050 Co2 net-zero target (27% of UK emissions are transport-related, mainly cars), and bequeath our children a country where people meet their neighbours and their children play in the streets.