This could be the time to usher in a golden age for cycling in Britain

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Saturday’s announcement of extra funds for walking and cycling was a rare example of political focus on sustainable travel. Could the investment announced by the transport minister, Grant Shapps, help usher in what Boris Johnson pledged a week earlier: a ‘golden age for cycling’?.

The measures announced at the weekend reflect the place cycling and walking have taken in our lives during the coronavirus crisis – and the key role they will play in our medium- and long-term future.

Quieter roads, combined with enforced time at home, have boosted cycling and walking by up to 70% in some places, the government says. More space for those activities matters because for the foreseeable future, public transport will be reduced to just 10% of its capacity and if the remaining trips move to private cars, we’re in for gridlock and air pollution. This is especially bad news with a respiratory virus running amok – several studies have suggested air pollution can worsen the impacts of the virus.

With almost half of commutes less than three miles, cycling and walking can take up a considerable amount of slack. What’s more, many people do not want to go back to their previous car-choked lives.

So, what was announced? There was GBP2bn for cycling and walking, with GBP250m fast-tracked for pop-up bike lanes. It’s important to note this money was already announced in February as part of a GBP5bn buses and cycling fund, and it’s spread over five years, ie GBP350m a year.

The really good news for active travel is the new statutory guidance that, where public transport use is high, local authorities should reallocate road space for walking and cycling. This is the first time a UK transport secretary has said that.

Measures can include pop-up cycle routes, including turning traffic lanes over to cycling using flexible wands, and widening pedestrian space with cones. Authorities can also restrict through-traffic near schools, residential streets and high streets, which can be done cheaply with planters and bollards. Bus- and bike-only corridors are another option, along with new 20mph zones, while councils with existing local cycling and walking infrastructure plans are encouraged to bring those forward. What’s more, GPs can prescribe cycling and exercise.

In June there will be an updated Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, with an active travel commissioner already being mooted, and a new inspectorate that could potentially ensure councils meet new higher standards for permanent infrastructure across England.

Phil Jones, an urban designer and transport planning consultant, sees the inspectorate as significant, and says councils not including walking and cycling in their plans will need to give reasons for the decisions, or risk finding themselves in breach.

It’s particularly helpful for councils wanting to create cycling and walking space but nervous of doing so, and this guidance will help residents push for such measures. It will also be harder for local authorities with high public transport use, such as in cities, not to act. Temporary infrastructure is cheap, and once there it’s easier for people to understand the benefits, and want to keep it.

Cycling and walking will have a long-term budget, similar to roads – something which is long overdue.

A big caveat is that the announced GBP2bn over five years keeps cycle funding flat. With that sum, the government is only forecast to get a third of the way to its target of doubling the percentage of cycle trips people take – from 2% of all journeys in 2015 to 4% by 2025. According to the Walking and Cycling Alliance, a network of active travel bodies, GBP5-6bn is needed over the next five years to achieve the target. By contrast, the latest road building bonanza resulted in GBP27bn being allocated for 4,000 miles of roads.

Vouchers for cycle repairs are welcome to help bring old bikes out of sheds into safe use, but electric bike subsidies – similar to those for electric cars – would have been good. As ebikes extend the distances people can cycle, with more widespread use one in five people in the UK could cycle to work.

In Manchester last week, the city’s cycling and walking commissioner, Chris Boardman, asked the government to permit zebra crossings across side roads without Belisha beacons – something common across Europe but currently illegal in the UK. That hasn’t happened yet, but would represent an extremely progressive move.

Cycling UK would like to see public health at the heart of transport and they say this is a potential step towards that – and arguably towards cycling being treated as a legitimate form of transport.

It is understood that this active travel push comes from Johnson himself. As someone who cycles, the prime minister understands its benefits. As London mayor he and his cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan – now his cycling adviser at No 10 – achieved dramatic improvements in infrastructure.

If the nation is to see the improvements Johnson hopes for, the next couple of months will be crucial. Councils must step up and help implement the infrastructure that will benefit everyone, regardless of their chosen modes of transport. It’s far from a done deal, but the pieces are in place and with courage, the UK now has an opportunity to bring in the “golden age of cycling” the prime minister has promised.

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