Wales needs to step it up

Rachel Maycock argues Wales needs to up its game to make change to become an active travel nation

Putting one foot in front of the other, what could be more simple?  Yet for more and more people in Wales this is not how they choose to get around.  A generation ago 70% of us walked to school, now it’s less than half and falling.  People are jumping into the car, instead of walking, for even very short journeys.  So what needs to change to make active travel the easiest and best choice for us?

The scale of the problems active travel can remedy is well rehearsed. Physical inactivity levels are rising, costing the NHS in Wales over £650 million a year. Each generation is getting more overweight than the last, and Wales is the worst in the UK with 59% of adults overweight, 23% classed as obese. Childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic. Whilst Wales is a vastly rural country, some of the air we breathe in our towns and cities is the most toxic in the UK, with road traffic being the main culprit.  We are more socially isolated and our communities are arguably less cohesive than ever before.

The passing of the Active Travel Act in 2013 was a momentous moment for Wales, a world-first!  Since then the pace of change has left much to be desired.  The letter of the legislation, to produce active travel maps and to invest in safe routes infrastructure, is on track.  However the vision to transform our country into an active travel nation is not yet being realised.  

The spirit and purpose of the Act is to increase active travel and this cannot be done in the transport portfolio alone.  Delivery needs to be seen across health, education, planning, communities as well as environment briefs.  A joined up effort across Welsh Government could make efficiency savings and, most importantly, see more people benefit from active travel.  

Active Travel delivery sits within road safety and transport in most local authorities and within the Welsh Government, but the bulk of benefits would be seen in public health.  Even within transport it’s hard to see how active travel fits in the hierarchy of priorities, mostly because it isn’t there.  Every new initiative, programme, pot of funding needs to examine how – not if – it will increase active travel.

While there are hot spots of behaviour-change delivering higher rates of walking and cycling and some good examples of infrastructure improvements, these are still the exception rather than the rule.

For example, out of the 1549 schools in Wales, according to the active travel annual report, there are currently fewer than 100 which are funded by Welsh Government to have intensive support to increase and improve active travel.  Only 30 schools in Wales received ‘Safe Routes in Communities’ funding to improve the journey to school in 2016/17.  There are some great programmes, like Kerbcraft and Junior Road Safety Officers, but because of cuts there are fewer officers and less time to deliver them.

So the scale of impact on the ground is still extremely small.  When we ask if people have noticed a difference since the Act was passed, either they don’t notice a positive difference or they don’t know how it is related to the Act.  There is an implementation deficit that needs to be addressed urgently.  There is also a lack of information and awareness that is disappointing.  The Welsh Government needs to think how it can lead the way in making Wales one of the safest and easiest places to walk, instead of finding excuses not to.

We regularly survey pedestrians on the issues which prevent them from walking as often or as safely as they wished.  The top two issues are almost always pavement parking and reducing speed limits where they live, play, shop and study.  The Wales Act 2017 devolves powers over speed limits of Welsh roads to the Welsh Government Ministers, allowing 20 miles per hour to be set as the standard speed limit in residential areas.  

Parking on pavements puts lives at risk and can deter vulnerable pedestrians altogether.  The law in England and Wales around pavement parking is strange.  It is illegal to drive on pavements but not – in most places (notable exceptions are London, Worcester and Exeter) – to park on them.  When the Active Travel Act is revised in a couple of years time, we should address these two issues head on.  

Compared with other investments in transport projects, walking environment improvements are good value for money.  If you build more roads, you will get more cars filling them up (which is just one of the reasons Living Streets opposes the M4 relief road).  The same is true for walking, if you build and promote well lit, well-maintained, direct routes which connect people to where they want to go, more people will use them.  If you reduce the dangers (real and perceived) of walking you will increase walking rates.  Park and stride, school exclusion zones and 20mph limits are proof of this.

In order for the Active Travel Act to be effective it’s current Action Plan needs to be urgently revised. It needs to consider all of Wales and not just the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of the capital and surrounding areas.  It needs to be more strategic and ambitious, setting targets and increasing multi-year funding to delivery partners and local authorities.  Data collection and evaluation are important to guide this work, but should no longer be used as a delaying tactic to hold up progress or innovation.  

We need to invest in schemes that are proven to increase walking (and scooting and cycling) across the country and ultimately make every school an active travel school, and every workplace an active travel workplace.  We want communities to have the power and support to shape their own solutions to increase active travel, as all too often they are an after-thought.  Co-production is not a reality in active travel.

Some of the levers to make this change exist in central government, but they are not being coordinated.  Or worse, they are simply not being used to enhance and increase active travel.  The 21st Century Schools programme, the Wales and Borders and Metro franchise, Planning Policy Wales – and of course the Well-being of Future Generations Act – are key opportunities, which are led and funded by Welsh Government that must be harnessed.  Every opportunity we miss now to improve active travel will not come round again for another generation.

Most of all we need to plan for a better and more active future for children in Wales.  The habits they develop now will determine the rest of their lives and the lives of their children to come.  

A walking nation means progress for everyone, so what are we waiting for?

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Rachel Maycock is Head of Public Affairs and Wales for Living Streets

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