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Ahead of her appearance at the next ICE Strategy Session, Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey examines why changing both attitudes and infrastructure is essential in increasing active travel.
I have quickly found that my role in the Sheffield City Region, of Active Travel Commissioner, can mean very different things to different people.
Our work supports positive change across so many different areas of society, from transforming how people make short journeys, to promoting better health, cleaner air, thriving local economies and more sustainable transport for longer journeys. The Active Travel programme is about more than simply trying to commission high quality cycling and walking facilities.
To some, the fact this role exists at all represents a long-overdue political shift in attitude and a recognition that we must improve the streets we live and work in, if we are to stand any chance of improving the population’s health.
But to others, it represents an anti-car agenda, threatening to disrupt the status quo of those who use motor vehicles benefiting from the prioritisation of cars in our transport infrastructure.
With such a broad spectrum of opinions, no shortage of people willing to vehemently express their stance and an equal number at a loss for answers that don’t include building more roads, the wealth of clear, unequivocal evidence that exists to back up the case for prioritising Active Travel is a vital tool that assists anyone in a role such as mine.
While producing the region’s Active Travel Implementation Plan – the document we released earlier this summer setting out the vision for a connected and comprehensive active travel network by 2040 across South Yorkshire – we used this evidence to show how making these changes to our society now, will positively impact the region in the future.
Arguments against Active Travel and creating more space for cyclists, mostly involve people wrongly assuming we are trying to make the lives of racing cyclists easier. In fact, the target groups for active travel infrastructure are the everyday cyclists, more commonly seen in The Netherlands or Denmark, although those wearing lycra may also enjoy segregation and a steadier speed too.
The people we aim to provide for are those who don’t need any other equipment than their bike and a security lock, having gently pedalled from A to B, perhaps with the kids in the seats at the front, or using an e-bike in hillier locations. It is a picture rarely seen in the UK, because even in places with better infrastructure, we struggle to create genuinely connected routes and places where all roads feel safe enough for even the most inexperienced cyclists.
The benefits of cycling and walking are almost never argued against. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t want cleaner air or to build activity back in to their lives, thus reducing the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics and reversing the sad fact that currently the average school age child has a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Walking is equally important, perhaps more so, because everyone will walk at some time during their day, even if it’s just a few steps to their car. We also have a very broad definition of walking to ensure every mobility aid is included. However, when it comes to addressing the challenges of creating safe space for active travel, one of the first challenges is often tackling a vocal minority who only see the short-term inconvenience to themselves, rather than the long-term benefit to everyone.
This is one of the most challenging aspects of the role. Creating the communications and courage within local authority partners to ensure that what benefits a majority for the long term, isn’t derailed in the short term.
Much can be learned from the journey of the Dutch from the 1970s, and like those Dutch campaigners, my team and I – a driver myself – are not trying to impose restrictions on motorists. We want to provide equal access to the public highway and ensure everyone has the right to a safe, efficient journey.
The safety of vulnerable road users and those out walking must be prioritised by authorities who are not afraid to tackle the greatest threat of harm. There also need to be fewer excuses enabled and a concerted effort to understand that roads are not dangerous unless they are used irresponsibly. These behavioural change measures, back up the work being done on the ground from a physical infrastructure perspective and ensure that when anyone is operating a motor vehicle they are aware of their responsibility to those around them.
It’s certainly a wide-ranging role, with so much to focus on, as schemes are being prepared for delivery. Whether it’s enabling a small child to walk to school for the first time or giving independence to a disabled person trapped in their home by poorly parked vehicles, the work we are doing can provide the transformational change everyone would like to see.
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