Reforming transport to improve the nations’ health

Jamie O’Hara says when it comes to legislation on active travel, where Wales leads, others follow.

Tonight, Wales will again show to the world what can be achieved through leadership and political vision.

We were first to introduce the ban on smoking in public buildings, Westminster  has only just caught up on charging for plastic carrier bags and earlier this year – quite rightly – there was huge praise for legislation on opting out for organ donations. Ahead of the curve when it comes to legislation and where we lead, others follow.

Tonight, Wales is set to lead the way again. Not just in the United Kingdom, but actually leading the world. When the Active Travel Bill becomes law, Wales will become the first country in the world to legislate for increasing the number of routes for walking and cycling.

This has been a long journey.  There were doubters of course, but there has been support from across the spectrum.  Businesses like BT backed the idea in its infancy, but perhaps the biggest gains will be found in health. This isn’t just a  dry piece of transport legislation, it’s a significant step towards making Wales a leaner, greener and healthier nation.

The NHS in Wales spends over £100million every year tackling diseases that would be easily prevented if we were all more active. Type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and even some cancers would be less likely to occur if more of us got the amount of exercise we need – and the easiest way to get it is to build exercise into our daily routine, by walking or cycling to work, to the shops, the cinema – wherever it is we need to go.

Yet under 2% of journeys are currently by bike. Sustrans Cymru research earlier this year showed that only 11% of people in Wales cycle once a week or more. The same research showed that safe routes and slower traffic speeds are the most likely interventions that will see more of those people who don’t cycle giving it a go.

The Welsh Government has responded with ambitious legislation that we should be as proud of as the Human Transplantation Act earlier this year.

The First Minister has led the way – speaking passionately last month at the first annual “Wales: A Cycling Nation” conference. His ambition to see a country with the best cycling infrastructure in Europe is to be congratulated and a clear indication of how seriously he takes this issue.

There have been attempts to increase cycling levels before, but all too often money allocated to cycling has been allocated from end of year underspend.  That means that what has been built has been the easiest, rather than the most useful. Or checking what’s left in the coffers in March and spending it quickly before the claws of every finance department in local government come creeping. Legislation will not only mean that every Welsh council will have a duty to deliver on active travel, but they will have a planned network of routes to ensure that available money is spent much more wisely. Policy makers across the border have been keeping a close eye, Labour’s transport spokesperson Maria Eagle told her party’s conference in Brighton last week that an incoming Labour Government would follow the Welsh lead in introducing legal duties to support active travel.

Growing up in Ruthin, I didn’t drive. I went everywhere by bus, by bike or by foot. I was ridiculed. Taking a bus was for bozos, cycling was for social dropouts and walking for, well, you get my drift. The car was king and if you didn’t own a Vauxhall Astra with a radio permanently fixed on a fuzzy Radio 1, you were nobody. But Wales is changing. Walking and cycling is cheap, healthy and in most cases a more convenient way to get around. That’s why this Government wants to make Wales a cycling nation, with the best walking and cycling infrastructure in the world.

You only need to look at the Bill to understand that they want to make walking and cycling the most natural and normal way of getting about, regardless of your economic background.

To their huge credit, the Government’s latest amendments to the Bill actually make it a stronger piece of legislation, addressing strategic plans, promotion and training, annual reports in the Assembly and monitoring. This legislation sets out a clear plan of action for shifting the way we travel for everyday shorter journeys.

Getting more people walking and cycling in Wales will benefit the entire nation. We’ll save our health service vital funds, we’ll cut congestion in our towns and cities – which is great for businesses and the environment, and boost our high streets.

Tonight, Wales will become a world-leader once again, and it’s something we should all be proud of.

Jamie O'Hara is Chair of the Sustrans Cymru Advisory Board.

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