A few years ago the Welsh Government decided to put the concept of active travel into law with the introduction of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013. This was Wales being first, Wales leading the way. It was an Act that would make active travel important. It would make it better and it would lead to real change. At least that was the promise. We’ll have a look later at whether it’s succeeded. But first you need to understand the manner in which it was introduced and what it seeks to do.
The Welsh Assembly is, in effect, the Welsh Parliament. It’s allowed to make law in relation to areas that are within its devolved competence. There are a number of areas in which Wales can make laws for itself and quite a few where it cannot. Unlike Scotland, Wales can only make law where a) that subject is within legislative competence and b) the thing being created is not within a list of exceptions. Wales is able to make law in relation to 21 broad areas which include highways and transport, health, social welfare and planning.
What is active travel as opposed to inactive travel? It’s a slightly odd piece of English but you get what they’re going for. Part of it, quite clearly, means not sitting on your bottom to get somewhere unless that bottom is sitting on a saddle. Or walking, don’t forget walking. It’s overlooked as a form of transport. It’s actually a pretty easy form of transport as well. You just put one foot in front of the other. But there’s more to active travel than that. It also means walking or cycling to get to somewhere but, on arrival, that somewhere is equipped with what you need to make that active travel worthwhile. It needs to be effective en-route as well, no point sending you on a 20 mile detour. Active travel as a concept attempts to remind people (i.e. planners!) that a route should attempt to cater for everyone and be useful to the majority.
We’re overly dependent on the car despite the claim of there being a “war on motorists.” There’s a pretty funny tweet going around at the moment. It’s along the lines of “If you’re on a tandem on your own people look at you weird, if you’re commuting in a car on your own….” and they’re right. And then there’s that picture that shows just how much road space x number of cars take up compared to x number of bikes. Let’s be absolutely clear. We need a solution because our dependence on mechanised transport, even public transport, cannot continue. If it does we will kill our planet.
I live in a very small village by most urban standards. Our population is less than 10,000. We have two primary schools and quite a large comprehensive school. The speed limit is almost exclusively 30 mph. It doesn’t need to be. It could be 20 mph. But that’s for another day. Despite its relatively diminutive size it is, like other small villages, chock full of cars at school time. A large amount of children are ferried to school in cars, a fair amount of them walk (depending on the weather), very few of them cycle, perhaps due to the fact that there are many cars and a 30 mph speed “limit.” There isn’t much demonstration of active travel on display at school dropping off and picking up time.
But there are changes coming. The lower end of Pencoed has been earmarked for £500,000 improvements to one of the “active travel” routes in order to provide for more safety for its users. A new pedestrian crossing is being built outside the school. Parking restrictions, at least in terms of zig zag markings, are being stepped up. There are incentives to promote active travel and disincentives to reduce inactive travel. But there are problems. Our reliance on cars as a mode of transport is not necessarily based on need. Ask any parent why they drive to school and you will hear that it is because “they’d like to walk but, in their particular circumstances they need to……” The truth, I suspect, is an elusive beast. And the truth of the answer is generally that “it’s easier.” So let’s be honest about this. Indeed, you need to be a particularly hardy soul to brave commuting. My commute is extreme, between 17-20 miles each day. I’m hardened to it. It’s almost a religion to me. I’m actually a fairly lazy person. So if I can do it……
Presently, matters are unbalanced. There are a hard-core group of people who would travel actively whatever the situation. There are those who will probably never do so. And then there are the others. Many of them will have excuses. Many of those excuses will be based on fear, or ignorance or a combination of things. We have a vicious circle of a lack of adequate infrastructure preventing people from alternative travel and a lack of people already doing so holds back investment in the future. To break the cycle we need words, we need engagement, leadership and we really need some money.
The Active Travel (Wales) Act places a requirement on local authorities to continuously improve facilities and routes for walkers and cyclists and to prepare maps identifying current and potential future routes for their use. It also requires new road schemes to consider the needs of pedestrians and cyclists at design stage. And you can find a link to a wealth of information here National Assembly for Wales : Active Travel (WALES) Act 2013 Documents
There’s a lot to read and a lot to take in. The explanatory memorandum is a good place to start. Ignore the hard bits. Just have a look at the purpose of it. It’s a world first. No other country has ever put such matters into law. It is absolutely right that we should laud it and shout it from the rooftops. But there are issues. There are many countries that have not needed to. The nirvana that we seek is already present in the enlightened ones. There are constraints and exceptions, get outs and caveats. It’s the introductory chapter. We need to start writing the story. We’re only starting out on this new path.
The Act is not one that requires anyone to build anything at all. Not really. It requires local authorities to map active travel routes and integrate them into the network, it requires improvement, enhancement and promotion of the needs of cyclists and walkers and, it appears, requires consideration to new (and improved) active travel routes.
The Act defines an Active Travel route as one which is present in the locality and which is appropriate to be an Active Travel route. And we immediately hit a speed bump. What is appropriate? What is a route? A series of consultations were launched by each of the local authorities to gain feedback from local users about what sorts of routes should be active travel routes. I attended one of these and, it is fair to say, they started from a very low base. That is not a criticism. It’s difficult to know what local knowledge exists unless you talk to people. The Active Travel route in Pencoed was identified, wait for it, as the road system. Not all of it, you understand, for cycling, use those roads, for walking, use those pavements. And the question is a much more complex one. Where are we (active) travelling from and where are we (active) travelling to? And once we’ve active travelled for that purpose what is the next active travel purpose?
And there are other problems, have a look at the explanatory memorandum.
“The Bill has an urban focus, though rural routes might be appropriate for connecting settlements where the distance and gradient make it possible to travel actively. We do not expect the definitive maps of rights of way to be duplicated in producing the maps required by this Bill, unless the routes could be sensibly used for every day journeys.”
The thing is, in this world, humans have located themselves in place (a) because they like it, or it’s cheap, and they work in place (b). So linking those places is actually very important. There’s a divergence here between the idea of active travel and the concept of alternative commuting. There’s an inherent difficulty. You can use the bike to go to the shops, but getting somewhere else? The main thrust of the Act is mapping both in relation to where current provisions exist (after having consulted and identified them) and where future provision might make things better. Subject, of course, to money.
By September 2015 local authorities needed to submit the existing routes map which identified those routes that were suitable for active travel. In doing so they needed to heed the consultation responses and also the Welsh Government’s Design Guidance.
By way of example, this is the one for Cardiff but you need to read it in conjunction with the statement. Don’t worry too much about that, it’s just the notes in relation to each of the routes and any issues associated with them. If you are unfamiliar with Cardiff, and many of you will be, let me say this to you, the majority of that existing route map is the Taff Trail. It winds its way through the City’s parks. It is a shared use path for the entirety of its route. Cardiff has a population of 340,000 people. There are 145 schools, one major University and a couple of major higher education providers. I have no criticism of the existing route map, it is what it is. But what it shows is the absolute dearth of provision for active travel that exists or, at least, has been identified as existing. And, in my view, Cardiff is one of the better places for getting out of traffic. In Cardiff, so far, so meh.
What’s going to be very interesting though is the Integrated Network Map. This has to be produced by September 2017. We’re a long way off seeing one of them from any local authority and it will be interesting to see what they look like. There’s a plan in place, there needs to be continuous improvement. The plan has to be re-submitted every 3 years to ensure that it is accurate and, one imagines, being acted on. In preparing the plan the local authority has to take reasonable steps to enhance the provision made for walkers and cyclists.
It’s great in theory. But there are still problems. There’s no minimum requirement. There’s a lack of any additional budget to go with it. There’s no real penalty for doing the minimum. In essence it’s all about hope rather than real substance. For real substance can only occur when there is money to make it a reality. Traditionally road schemes are funded by any money left over at the end of a financial year. And schemes for walkers and cyclists are generally low on the list.
It’s a grand idea but it might just work, depending on the level of buy in. My experience to date, at least of Bridgend Council, is that they have bought in. They may not have the budget for grand plans in these post(?) austerity times. But there’s been an engagement at their level and a plea to buy into it at ours. Here’s a link to their presentation. I attended one of those sessions and the enthusiasm of those who led it was good to see. As I said earlier the awareness of the local authority in relation to where active travel routes were was lacking. But, how are they supposed to know? That’s what consultation and engagement is about. It’s for local people to identify how they travel that’s particularly important.
Let’s pause for a moment and come back to our new cycle path. I asked Bridgend Council for some details about it and was given the following information:
- The cost of the works was approximately £375k;
- The scheme was delivered through the Welsh Government’s Local Transport Fund but very much sits within the context of the Active Travel Act and forms one section of a route identified in the active travel network plan for Bridgend and Pencoed developed previously by the Council;
- The expenditure was planned and wasn’t a case of spending what was left over.
Before I’d asked the local rumour mill was of the belief that this 1/4 mile section had cost a cool £1.5 million. In fact the cost was much less. To be frank, the cost in my view is pretty cheap for a 16 week duration of works. What’s interesting is that while this does not arise as a result of the local authority’s obligations under the Act it’s clear that something is being done to improve active travel even now. While the budget for the works may not exist within the authority, the Welsh Government might appear to be putting its money where its mouth is in relation to implementation.
I asked Matthew Gilbert, Transportation Officer at Bridgend CBC for his views on a number of issues and he told me that:
“I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that funding is, and will continue to be, one of the key barriers to implementing the Act. However, I think that the production of the Integrated Network Maps by local authorities will ensure that the planning of cycling and walking networks are given sufficient thought and should allow whatever funding is available to be used in the most effective way. I would also suggest that there is a need for a more concerted effort to publicise and promote the Act and walking and cycling in general, particularly at a national level. This could include the benefits from being more active and tie into the health agenda and link to other WG legislation (Health and Well-being of Future Generations for example).”
And I agree. It’s actually quite simple. For too long we’ve dreamed of the idea of active travel and how it would be lovely if someone could build something to make it possible. The problem is that no-one ever really thought that you cannot run (or cycle) before you can walk. And to be able to make those decisions of how to improve matters you first have to understand how all the stuff you already has fits together. This is Bridgend Council’s Existing Route Map. I live in Pencoed. It’s a bit isolated from the rest and doesn’t appear to have much in the way of active travel at the moment. That will change. For a start our new path will form a black line towards Bridgend and link communities. But what’s startling about Bridgend is just how much existing linkage there is. Indeed, starting at the Brewery Field in Bridgend one can cycle all the way to the Bwlch almost exclusively on a shared use path. As long as you still have your head intact.
On a local level things are going well. There’s a decent network now and enthusiastic individuals in the authority and among the local population. But at National level things aren’t that rosy. The National Assembly’s committee has warned that a lack of funding and leadership are holding matters back. And I’d agree with that view. Both of those matters are key to moving forward. That leadership has to start with the First Minister and the Minister with this portfolio. No Ministers have yet been appointed following the recent Assembly Elections. The committee has helpfully provided a report into the progress of the Act so far. Assembly Report.
There’s a lot to take in there. But one thing really stood out for me and it’s this line “It was noted that highly motivated individuals in local authorities can make a big difference.” Never has a truer word been said. It’s interesting to note that while the Welsh Local Government Association are mentioned in the evidence gathering section, only Bridgend CBC are listed individually. Chwarae Teg to them (that’s Welsh for fair play). Unless there is engagement from those responsible for delivery then nothing will happen. It won’t be quick, to change attitudes rarely is, but that level of enthusiasm is required for what is a daunting task given the lack of any real budget. We really are talking about rabbits out of hats.
But the real sadness are the findings in section 1. Local authorities don’t have the money, they have to bid like everyone else. We’re spending less than the UK per head on active travel, a piffling £3 per person. The committee recommends a culture shift from motoring towards active travel. A message. But that message comes at a time when we’re looking at an M4 relief road and a Metro project. Will the latter feature active travel provision given that it crosses local authority boundaries and joined up mapping is still another dream?
I’m hopeful. Hopeful that a Government with a 5 year term will do something that needs to be done, even if we do now have a minority Government. The Active Travel Act was a rocket underneath the apathy of our travel choices. They lit the touch paper. The main question now is whether they treat that rocket as fire and forget or whether they have the engagement to carry this one through.
For a fuller version of this article with pictures please head over to: