Cycle off excess Welsh weight

Lee Waters asks what we can do about our obesity epidemic

If UK is in danger of becoming the ‘fat man of Europe’, as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has claimed, then what does that make Wales? And what are we going to do about it?

With 36 per cent of children overweight or obese Wales has the highest rates of childhood obesity in the UK – and not far behind the US. And it is not just a matter of appearances. Carrying too much weight has a direct impact on our health: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and some types of cancer, are all consequences of the obesity epidemic. It is estimated that the NHS in Wales spends £1 million every week treating obesity related illness.

Tackling the fast food and fizzy drink culture is a key part of the effort to tackle this modern scourge, but so too is getting people moving. Physical inactivity and sedentary living are among the leading causes of chronic disease, ill health and death in Wales. In fact as many people die from physical inactivity each year as from smoking.

Last week, the Welsh Government introduced their ‘Active Travel’ Bill into the Senedd. It marked the first time legislation has been framed to place a legal duty on central and local government to encourage more people to walk and cycle.

The focus is on short everyday journeys. In 2011, over 20 per cent of the car journeys we made were under two miles, a distance that could easily be covered on foot or by bike. A survey by the road safety charity Brake (echoed by a similar Sustrans sponsored poll) found that 46 per cent of people would be persuaded to cycle on local roads if conditions are improved.

Too often at the moment the paths that are built don’t link up, are poorly designed and are not well maintained. We’ve all seen random pieces of coloured tarmac that stop all of a sudden, leaving cyclists marooned in traffic. No wonder research finds that people think cycling is eccentric and that only a minority would choose to brave such an experience.

A major study led by Lancaster University found that most people don’t regard cycling as something for them.  “It is regarded either as a toy for children or a vehicle fit for the poor and or strange,” said Dave Horton one of the research authors. “Many regard cycling as a bit embarrassing”.

This is hardly surprising really, given that just two per cent of journeys are by bike. Clearly it is not something that most people currently do. It is therefore, by definition, unusual.

But survey after survey has shown that it is something that many more people would consider doing. The Lancaster University research shows that habits, working patterns and current road conditions put people off getting on a bike. However, a package of measures to make cycling easier and more attractive has the potential to reverse the long term decline. The researchers suggested some of the things that can be done:

  • Fully segregated cycle and pedestrian routes wherever feasible.
  • Restrictions on traffic speeds and parking provision; a change in legal liabilities on roads to protect the most vulnerable road users.
  • Changes to structure of cities to make accessing services on foot or by bike easy.
  • Changes to give people more flexibility to travel more slowly (for example, flexi hours).

All these actions are realisable and taken together they could and a change the image of cycling and walking.

The Active Travel (Wales) Bill won’t tackle all of these, but it will make a start. When the Bill becomes law in October, councils will have to map out an ideal future network which plugs existing gaps, and extends routes to schools, workplaces and residential areas. Crucially it will be underpinned by a set of design standards that will ensure that new infrastructure conforms to best practice and doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Local Authorities will also be expected to maintain and improve the networks. Naturally there are concerns from local government about the cost of these extra duties, especially since the Welsh Government stress there will be no additional funding. Around £14 million is being spent on safer cycling, and if all the Bill achieves is to spend that in a more joined up way then it will be worthwhile.  However, to really make a difference it needs to be backed with additional funding.

For the Active Travel Bill to reach its full potential, Wales needs to follow the lead of countries such as Holland and Denmark. They haven’t always been filled with cyclists. Thirty to forty years ago, the Dutch were like us – wedded to their cars. Their government made a conscious decision to invest in making walking and cycling the normal way to get around everyday. Now they spend around £19 per head on walking and cycling schemes. In Wales, if the same level of investment was made it would equate to £60 million a year – the cost of a couple of miles of new road.

Of course, the passing of this Bill will not see mini versions of Copenhagen popping up across the Welsh valleys. The barriers to getting more of us cycling are many and varied. However, it will address some systemic barriers which are preventing the growth of a cycling culture. The Welsh Government has set out an ambitious vision which will require considerable resources and political will to implement over a generation. The combined pressure of rising petrol prices, climate change and an obesity epidemic means it is a vision worth striving towards.

Lee Waters is National Director of the Sustainable Transport charity Sustrans Cymru.

15 thoughts on “Cycle off excess Welsh weight

  1. “For the Active Travel Bill to reach its full potential, Wales needs to follow the lead of countries such as Holland and Denmark. They haven’t always been filled with cyclists. Thirty to forty years ago, the Dutch were like us – wedded to their cars. Their government made a conscious decision to invest in making walking and cycling the normal way to get around everyday. Now they spend around £19 per head on walking and cycling schemes. In Wales, if the same level of investment was made it would equate to £60 million a year – the cost of a couple of miles of new road.”

    At the risk of stating the obvious Denmark and the Netherlands are famously flat whilst Wales in famously mountainous. They are also densely populated and largely urban, Wales is for the most part rural and population density is patchy.

    I assume that the £19 per head figure relates to maintaining pre-existing cycle infrastructure and public awareness campaigns encouraging people to use them. You are proposing building a completely new integrated cycle network from scratch – a scheme which would inevitably involve re-configuring existing roads and probably compulsory purchase and demolition of buildings to make way for new tracks. It will cost vastly more than £19 per head for several years until the infrastructure is in place.

  2. When I was young if I wanted to go anywhere I cycled. Even when I started work I cycled, until someone stole my bike. But these places where I lived and worked were relatively flat!

    When I first moved here 9 years ago I bought a second hand bike with the intention of reducing my car mileage. But to go any distance I have to negotiate hills and with the awful weather of the past few years the bike has remained indoors, unused.

    In flat places like Hull, Cambridge and Oxford – even Edinburgh cycling is a sensible option. My youngest son lives in Cambridge and often cycles to work. My eldest is in North Berwick and usually cycles into work in Edinburgh. But Wales is full of hills! How much will it cost to flatten them?

  3. It is so tempting to get on my high horse here, lecturing about how soft we’ve become, how ready we are to leap out of the rain and sit in an expensive polluting car, or to avoid an incline. I’ll try not to be. So I’m going to suggest something different; common sense application of transport choice.

    If you live in the centre of Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Carmarthen, Pontypool, Monmouth, and even – I would argue – some of the valleys communities, hills are neither a particularly massive problem (if you excuse the pun) nor particularly present (though Swansea, I concede, is very hilly). In these areas it’s perfectly feasible to cycle regularly and put up with the odd hill (remembering of course, that any hill will make you fitter and do your health a world of good). However, I’m not advocating for one moment that you ditch all other forms of transport to adopt the bike. Sometimes, the weather IS appalling (though waterproof clothing is available). sometimes you don’t feel well and sometimes a vehicle is the more efficient option (normally outside of urban settings). When that is the case, mix and match. Perhaps ride today and drive tomorrow, or take the train (or even – dare I say it? – use the bus). To my mind, staunchly advocating a one size fits all approach polarises opinion and behaviour.

    In summary, my advice would be this; aim to cycle a few times a week and when the weather allows. Challenge yourself occasionally with a hill. Benefit from the improvement in your health and the impact on your wallet. Enjoy contributing to something that improves the environment for all (and by that I mean improved air quality, reduced traffic – imagine if every cyclist added another car on the road? – lower noise levels and safer streets).

    To qualify all of this, I’ve lived in Cardiff all my life (even the hilly bits), gave up my company car 10 years ago to return to cycle commuting and have cycle toured, raced and helped with coaching (both with Cardiff JIF cycling club). I drive when I need to and use the train for business purposes (because you can’t type a report while you drive).

  4. “A major study led by Lancaster University found that most people don’t regard cycling as something for them. “It is regarded either as a toy for children or a vehicle fit for the poor and or strange,” said Dave Horton one of the research authors. “Many regard cycling as a bit embarrassing”. …”

    For me, the phrase “Many regard cycling as a bit embarrassing” is interesting. I currently work in Bristol, and have lived in Scotland and know Edinburgh extremely well – how do these two cities have a vibrant culture of cycling, despite their very hilly topography – is it allied to the fact that these are 2 of the most creative, enterprising and productive cities in the UK, with a kind of dynamism which embraces the cycling mindset?

    Cardiff is not an exceptionally hilly city, especially when compared to the topography of Bristol or Edinburgh, but has nowhere near the same ‘critical mass’ of cycling.

  5. I agree with Simon Nurse. Large parts of Cardiff are pretty flat. I’m fortunate enough, living in Penarth, to have the benefit of the (flat) Cardiff Bay barrage. On a fine day – it has to be said – I can be seen cycling across of a morning, and then wending my way up the Taff Trail to the IWA office in Cathedral Road which backs directly on to it. When the sun is shining it’s a pleasure. So, too, is cycling back with the wind in your face after a day at the office. Doesn’t seem to me that cycling is ‘eccentric’ or just for a minority of people … councils take note.

  6. I grew up with cycling everywhere and cycle-sport training – got my resting heart rate down to 42 a minute at one point – so I’m hardly anti-bike.

    But what I see now is roads that are so badly maintained they are too dangerous to ride on – pot-holes, ruts, ‘tram-lines’, tar strips without friction material, crazy bits of camber, raised and sunken iron-ware, etc. etc.

    Add to that the fact that trucks and buses are 9 inches wider than they were when I was a big kid, cars are wider, traffic moves faster and is more dense reducing visibility, and drivers seem to have less consideration for both motor bikes and push bikes than they used to.

    Where does that leave cyclists outside of a protected area? With a fair chance of ending up dead or injured is my conclusion.

    And since the state of the roads has smashed 2 road springs in my cars over the last 3 years, is there any chance we can put all the people on the unsustainable sustainability payroll back on the dole until we’ve saved enough money to fix the roads – please?

  7. Having a sperate infrastructure for cyclists is not a cost effective solution, the current road network gets cyclists easily from A to B. It is already maintained (well pot holes aside) and gritted and swept of leaves by councils. Cycle paths are not like this, often too narrow, cluttered with sign posts, shared with walkers and dogs, and in winter they are often left covered with leaves and frozen and icy in cold weather. The real issue is not that roads are un-safe, it is rather the behaviour of a certain number of drivers are unsafe. Tackle this and roads will become even safer for all users (driver, cyclists, pedestrians, horse riders and motor cyclists).

    So give the cash being spent on pointless red paint and similar schemes which are often poorly designed and nothing more than box ticking exercises by local authorities, to the Police, and get some strong on-road policing presence and enforcement with higher penalties for driving on the phone and similar.

    Finally continure the already excellent National Standards cycle training schemes delivered, by organisations such as Cycle Training Wales, to year 6 pupils right across Wales and extend this scheme to include refresher training for those kids who choose to cycle to high school.

    Take these actions and we will see a rise in cycling, a reduction in road related injuries and deaths and improved levels of fitness and well-being as a result.

    As for more cycle paths, for leisure and exploring wild areas of Wales, yes please, for commuting, shared paths just don’t work.

  8. Thanks for responding. I’ll try and deal with the main points raised so far:

    The idea is not to build ‘ a completely new integrated cycle network from scratch’, nor is it all about ‘cycle paths’. But to create a meaningful ‘network’ that links people to where they want to go – that will mean some parts are segregated lanes on roads, some traffic free (like the Taff Trail), some signed routes on existing residential roads (ideally 20mph).

    It is about stitching together a network of routes to create a viable whole that allow ‘active travel’ to be a viable and realistic choice for everyday journeys – remember 20% of car trips are under 1 mile.

    There are some hills. In fact they existed 50 years ago too when cycling and walking levels were much higher. Simon Nurse is right, because we’d adopted sedentary lifestyles many now thing some exercise is beyond them – but a gradual reintroduction to ‘active travel’ will help tackle that. The same goes for rain – it seems worse than it is. Ask any dog walker, the idea of going out rarely reflect the reality of the weather once you are outdoors.

    In other words the big barriers to change are habit and perception. Like recycling, once you start to do it it can alter the way you think about your habits and can help to change them.

    Nic’s point about making the roads safer places to be is obviously right. But given the low levels of cycling (around 2% of journeys) it is a hard sell getting people who haven’t cycled for years to go straight on a main road (even with the excellent training you provide at Cycle Training Wales). Survey after survey shows that people new to cycling are more attracted to a traffic free path. They are not the place for people who want to go fast, but they do offer benefits for a very large number.

    And that’s the point of a network, you need all the bits. Safer roads, well designed routes and traffic free paths.

  9. Thanks Lee, I think your final paragraph is a good place to start from, though there desperately needs to be more input from “real” cyclists on cycling facilities. A quick ride up the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Caerphilly and at every juncture, I have to stop and get off, why? because the path designers decided it was more important to deter motor cyclists from using the trail, than it was for a cyclist, with panniers,(or a tag along, or a kids trailer, etc) to be able to proceed unhindered. The “gates” are awful, they ruin the whole cycling experience. Cycling offers freedom and ease of mobility and many cyclists cycle because they can go places on a bike and keep moving when other forms of transport get held up, such infrastructure has no place on a cycle route and urgently needs re-dress.

    Your point regarding traffic free paths, is very valid and I agree, the novice needs help to get going, but a cyclist does not remain a novice for long and any solution needs to recognise the progression which many riders want to make from paths to roads. Thus training for cyclists, sensibly planned and well designed on road cycle facilities (not cycle lanes painted adjacent to give way lines) and well policed roads, should also be part of the drive to get more people active, walking and cycling.

  10. Completely agree Nic. As important as the Bill itself will be the guidance that accompanies it. I am very encouraged that Carl Sargeant has appointed Phil Jones (the lead author of Manual for Streets) to lead a task & finish group to write the design guidance that will accompany the Bill. There are some serious people on the panel who understand on-road cycle design and I believe their recommendations, if accepted, will come into force in the new year – ahead of the mapping part of the Bill. The crucial point to influence is that the outcome is design standards – that must be applied – and not ‘guidance’ that can be set aside. Done well this has the greatest point to influence what goes in on the ground.

  11. The use of cycling to get over weight people in a better shape is very valid, however it takes a) having a bike, b) safe roads, c) effort to make any real impact. I cycle around my village, and in the country lanes and with the huge lorries travelling from Aberthaw to Bridgend it isn’t pleasant, and positively dangerous. The general condition of roads have deteriorated, and that will continue due to unwanted cut backs on road maintenance, whilst money to the third world pours out like there is no tomorrow. With regard to effort from that category, you can forget it as they are completely attuned to a life of idleness, which is funded by hard working tax payers. I’ll try to get my bike onto my car and travel 40 miles and meet such ‘worthy’ people on these very fashionable cycle routes.

  12. Cycling for leisure is fine, but it will only ever be a small minority of people who do that. And they are likely to be relatively fit anyway. When cycling was the norm and now in many flat places like Cambridge, there was and is a far greater cycling mileage – and daily use for work. This contributed far more to general fitness and more importantly ‘leanness’ than is likely to be acheived by weekend leisure cycling. As for roads they have to be wide enough to allow cycle lanes, so you are always going to be limited by the existing road network.

  13. I want to start my comment by congratulating everyone who has brought this imaginative legislation to fruition. It goes some way towards the transport/travel transition which is needed and has a great benefit in ensuring at least that there will be debates at local authority level to accommodate and promote and ensure active travel measures will be put in place.

    However it seems that the debate here is tending towards a narrow vision of what active travel could mean focussing on mono-modal forms of travel.

    There are two paradigm shifts which are hitting our societies, one is ecological, in it’s narrowest form the need to combat climate change for example, the other is mobility where through technological change and “locative media” advances, the relationship between our daily lives (work, rest and play) and places will be transformed.

    Any transition of supply and our demand for future mobility patterns will therefore necessarily be multi-modal and also be supported by mobile technology services. So we need to ensure that proposals arising from this legislation takes this into account.

    To illustrate the former, one of my most salutary lessons on the relationship between ecology, mobility/transport and cycling came on a study visit to Cuba in the early 90s. Withdrawal of USSR cheap petrol left the island in a perilous state effecting both agriculture and mobility/transport. Cuba was the first “Peak Oil” country and as an island was especially at risk. As there was very little petrol nor Bio Ethanol to be had, cycling became the norm. Having taken my bike there I joined in and spent a very enjoyable couple of weeks cycling round Havana. This enforced shift to “active travel” released a plethora of innovations. At the Multi-Modal level the most obvious were the Cyclo-Buses and Cyclo-Ferries. Buses and Boats devoid of seats which were available, free if I remember rightly, to take you and your bike, across the estuary of the port, or under the road tunnel.

    But you don’t need to travel to the Caribbean to see active travel multi-modal services in action. In Copenhagen, the Metro and peri-urban train services are equipped to allow cyclists to undertake part of their journey by public transport, increasing the flexibility and scope for cycling where it becomes a mode for the “last kilometre” to and from the structural transport mode. Medium distance cycling thus becomes much more available to those who don’t feel like or can’t make a 20+ km commute, and more relevant to rural and semi rural areas.

    So promotion of active travel will need to consider the whole network as Lee quite rightly says in one of his contributions.

    Just a further point replying to one comment that suggests that we are unable to create cycle lanes often because our roads are too narrow. They are too narrow because they are full of single occupancy cars taking up far too much space. We need to turn our thinking on it’s head if we are to transform our mobility systems. Take many of these vehicles off the roads through carrots (cycle routes, free or ecologically priced public transport etc) or sticks (increased petrol costs, congestion charging etc) and they’ll quickly become wide enough for dedicated cycle lanes.

    In other words it’s just a question of priorities.

  14. Nic,

    As someone who has managed the building of a few cycle paths, unfortunately the ‘gates’ are really the only solution to dealing with a serious problem of motorbikes. A price to pay.

    Also many of us do interpret existing standards and guidance as no one location is the same as another, especially as many of the locations in Wales and the Valleys have their own challenges. The road I live on has narrow pavements, houses that open onto the pavement and no room to expand.

  15. Mark, the gates are not the only solution to dealing with anti-social use. RCT Council have shown how working with local police and getting ‘bobbies on bikes’ is a far more effective method. Not least since most ‘access controls’ are poorly designed and don’t stop all motorbikes but do stop people with disabilities from using paths and families with tag along bikes.

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