In a recent effort which aims to improve the health of the nation alongside a host of other benefits, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a £2 billion initiative which will aim to get the entire country on their bikes. In what the PM describes as “the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring” the initiative dubbed ‘Active Travel England’ has the support of many. Active Travel was inspired in part by the side effects of the pandemic on everyday society, as the PM notes that as a nation we need to “think harder about our health”. This is not only a humanitarian effort however, as the indirect cost of physical inactivity in the UK totals £7.4 billion per year, with a further direct cost of £1bn. But what really are the overall positives and negatives of the scheme? What challenges could it face, and what are the possible long-term effects?

How will the Active Travel scheme be structured?

Laid out in their ‘Gear Change’ plan, which claims to be “a bold vision for cycling and walking” the government has split the Active Travel scheme into four different themes.

1. Better streets for cycling and people:

The plan promises thousands of miles of “safe, continuous, direct routes for cycling in towns and cities” and will implement segregated bike paths on main roads in an attempt to draw people towards cycling more.

2. Cycling at the heart of decision-making:

The government’s promise of £2bn across the next five years represents a six-fold increase in funding for cycling and walking initiatives. Backers of the scheme have repeatedly said that they are serious about putting cycling at the heart of transport policy.

3. Empowering and encouraging local authorities

As the only roads actually owned by the government are motorways where cycling is strictly prohibited, as well as inaccessible A roads, it will be up to local councils to implement the scheme. Not only will the funding be directly accessible for local authorities, but training schemes will also be put in place as well as new officer roles. Not only this but the plan will also enact measures that will allow local authorities to enforce against moving traffic offences.

4. Enabling people to cycle and protecting them when they do

The scheme will offer cycle training for all either for free or at a nominal cost. Prescription cycling will be offered and measures to combat bike theft will be taken. Legal changes as well as changes to the highway code will be made in an effort to protect road users and a national electrically-assisted bike support programme will come into effect. Active Travel England are also currently trialling £50 bike repair vouchers, with over 50,000 vouchers already being made available.

What are the benefits of Active Travel England?

One of the main drivers of Active Travel England is to cut down on NHS Costs by increasing the population’s physical activity and encouraging social distancing whilst travelling. Environmentally, the scheme hopes to help in the fight against Covid-19 by reducing air pollution, which has been shown to exacerbate the virus. This focus on the reduction of air pollution can also be seen as being part of a wider policy to veer the nation towards net-zero emissions. If the plan hits its goal of doubling cycling and increasing walking, over £567 million could be saved annually from air quality issues alone whilst preventing 8,300 premature deaths each year.

The inclusion of e-bikes in the scheme is also very likely to cause a  positive spillover effect in terms of investment as entrepreneurs clamour to get on board with electrification and clean energy as well as the cycling industry itself which currently contributes £5.4bn to the economy annually whilst also providing 64,000 jobs.

The social scope of the Active Travel programme is huge. According to the Department of Transport 1 in 6 deaths in the country is due to physical activity. Cycling could also help to prevent and manage over 20 chronic conditions and diseases, including some cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The same report states that the 20 minutes of exercise per day that cycling would bring could cut the risk of developing depression by 31% whilst increasing worker productivity. As part of the deal, there will be a £250 million injection to be used for the erection of pop-up protected bike lanes which will not only make it safer to cycle but ease social distancing as we transition into a post-pandemic world.

Twelve outer-London boroughs will also be transformed into ‘Mini-Hollands’ with “intensive, transformational spending on their roads and streetscapes” with the hopes that over time they will become “as cycle and pedestrian-friendly as their Dutch equivalents”. This has already been trialed in 3 London areas, and is modelled after the Dutch scheme which increased cycling by up to 50%.

What complications could Active Travel England face?

Although the reaction to Active Travel England seems overwhelmingly positive, there are some issues that need to be discussed further to ensure that the plan reaches its full potential. The government may seem focused on its goal to get everybody cycling, but the fact remains that less than 2% of journeys are taken by bike. Even on shorter journeys under two miles the majority of people use their cars. And although Boris has suggested that this programme is biggest change since motorised vehicles were introduced, it’s going to take a lot of effort outside of the funding to get people on board socially. The £2bn figure may seem like a lot, but put into context it’s less than the government allocates annually to fixing potholes and is running concurrently with a £27bn scheme for new roads which will focus on boosting car use. Another primary issue is the fact that the scheme leans heavily on local authorities across the country to all create radical change in their own jurisdictions. Even though there is a clear goal for Active Travel England, the fact that this isn’t being nationally handled by a single governing body may produce mixed results.

Long term impacts

Aside from the obvious health and environmental implications, there are quite a few long-term effects for the plan. We are already seeing an uptick in the cycle industry in part due to the government’s backing of the sector. Shares in both Halfords and Dutch bicycle company Accell Group have been enjoying huge gains on the market. If we look elsewhere in the world a study in Auckland, New Zealand has recently shown that the economic benefits of this kind of cycling policy can outweigh the costs by more than 20 times in the long run. In the years to come, if Active Travel England can be implemented correctly not only will we have a healthier, longer living population but we will also see an increase in storefront profits, reduced traffic and pollution and a boom in clean energy.

Analytics by Manjot Heer