Report on the first ever Cycling and Walking Commissioners’ National Summit, 17 June 2019
Over recent years increasing numbers of cities, regions and indeed city-regions have started to take cycling and walking more seriously, and have appointed regional Cycling and Walking Commissioners (or equivalent roles) to steer and oversee these processes of transformation in how we get around. On Monday 17 June the UK’s Cycling and Walking Commissioners were invited to the first national summit hosted in central Manchester by Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester.
On the panel were:
- Chris Boardman, GM Cycling and Walking Commissioner
- Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region
- Sarah Storey, Active Travel Commissioner, Sheffield City Region
- Will Norman, London’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner
- Shanaze Reade, West Midlands Cycling and Walking Ambassador
- Liam Robinson, Chair of the Liverpool City Region combined Authority Transport Committee
- Simon O’Brien, Cycling Champion, Liverpool City Council
- Lee Craigie, Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland
Naturally, a couple of WalkRide GM representatives were in attendance, eager to report back on the outcomes of the summit.
Andy Burnham introduced the meeting by explaining that we urgently need a culture change to tackle the combined issues of congestion, pollution and inactivity: in short, we need to stop building for cars. He explained that he had to work hard to convince the ten leaders of the GM Combined Authority to spend the bulk of the Transforming Cities Fund on cycling and walking, but ultimately the fact that active travel brings with it not just economic, but also health and environmental benefits cannot be ignored. Currently 250 million journeys of under a kilometre are made by car across GM, and there is no stronger case for change than his recent experience at a primary school in Radcliffe where only some four children currently cycle, but almost all would if it were safe. This is about the next generation.
Next to speak was Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield, who was elected more recently than Andy Burnham and is seeking to emulate many of the things that are happening across Greater Manchester. He has appointed Sarah Storey as his Active Travel Commissioner and is keen to emphasise that active travel is fun as well as efficient. He acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done in winning over the many people who have not yet bought into the active travel agenda. He then told us that at the upcoming Transport for the North meeting in Bradford, active travel is an agenda item for the first time. He also explained that the Commissioners needed to work not only with national government and the new minister with the active travel brief, Michael Ellis, but also to ensure that active travel is also prioritised at regional level.
It was then the turn of Chris Boardman, our very own Cycling and Walking Commissioner. He started by saying that rather than talking about walking and cycling, he considers his brief to be enabling people to get around without cars. And for that to happen, we need to create alternatives that are at least as appealing as driving. He then outlined the five key areas for nationwide action that the Commissioners have highlighted in a letter to the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling:
- A commitment to long-term funding, such as is enjoyed by other modes such as the roads programme overseen by Highways England.
- Political commitment to minimum quality standards, to ensure that any walking and cycling money is spent well. Painted white bike lanes can actually decrease cyclist safety, so should be avoided, for instance.
- Enable revenue from fixed-penalty notices to fund road danger reduction measures. Cuts in policing have resulted in a decline in enforcement of road traffic offences. However, if there were a mechanism by which the revenues from fixed-penalty notices could be re-invested in the community, this could generate public support for both enforcement measures and the resulting road-safety initiatives.
- Keep traffic regulations under review to facilitate innovation: for example to permit pilots of informal zebra crossings (i.e. just the stripes, no beacons), which can be installed for around £300 and which have been proven to enhance safety for pedestrians.
- Transport investment decisions should account for the true cost of car use to society: as a result of ignoring the negative consequences of car use, our society has often underestimated the benefits of active travel and overestimated the value of motorised travel, with the result of a frequent poor rate of return on public money.
Liverpool’s cycling champion Simon O’Brien then took the floor. He related a story from 30 years ago when he realised the cognitive dissonance of having a Greenpeace window sticker in his car, whereupon he sold the car and has since travelled almost exclusively by bike. He said that the key to good PR for walking and cycling is to explain to people why it’s brilliant, and not to cajole people who currently drive. He noted that you can tell how forward-thinking a country is by how many protected bike lanes they have, and that on a visit to Burkina Faso 20 years ago they had more protected bike lanes than Liverpool does, and he suspects that’s still the case. He also intimated that the eternal rivalry with nearby Manchester may be pushing cycling up the agenda in Liverpool.
We then heard from Shanaze Reade with the Midlands perspective. She explained that since taking up post recently she has been exploring the barriers to cycling and spending a lot of time in schools, noting that nowadays many children can’t even ride a bike. She welcomed the opportunity to compare notes with other commissioners, and explained how she’s particularly passionate about enabling more women to cycle.
Next up was Lee Craigie, Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland, who started by outlining her background as a mountain-biker and outdoor instructor, before reminiscing about a childhood many of us of a certain age can relate to, namely buzzing about on bikes with your mates pretending to be characters from 1970s/1980s kids’ TV shows. She noted that Scotland is currently 50 years behind the Dutch position and is still hugely car-obsessed. She addressed an issue that many of us are painfully aware of, that many elected members are terrified of the potential backlash from their electorate if they are seen to be anti-car: indeed, many car drivers in Scotland (but not only there) deem bike-riders worthy of fewer rights on the road. Research shows the main barrier to cycling in Scotland not to be the weather or the terrain, but that there are simply too many cars. Cycling levels in Scotland remain at a stubborn 3% of journeys. Children in deprived areas are three times more likely to walk or cycle to school, but they are disproportionately affected by tailpipe emissions and traffic danger, so improving active travel is in fact also a social justice issue. On the plus side, Scotland has increased its active travel budget to £80 million (which is match-funded by local authorities), representing spend of a respectable £25 or so per head. Traffic injuries are down, and the 3% cycling levels conceal localised peaks such as 9% in Edinburgh. Six major infrastructure projects are being built and there are another ten in the pipeline. And Edinburgh is currently closing central streets one Sunday a month for 18 months to give a flavour of what a car-free city looks like.
The next speaker was Dame Sarah Storey, Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region. She explained that she has been in post since 1 April 2019 and is keen to ensure that any initiatives have community buy-in, that people decide themselves to get out of their cars. Similar to GM, in Sheffield 40% of car journeys are less than 1km. She reiterated the need for minimum quality standards and that her background in para-sport means that she’s particularly focused on ensuring that infrastructure is accessible to disabled people. She then outlined her timetable for drawing up standards, network planning and getting the first infra on the ground by May 2020. Her last point was that leisure cycling is worth focusing on as many people progress from leisure to utility cycling, so that is also a key part of her strategy.
Last up was Will Norman, London’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner, who started by saying that all around the world it’s cities, not nations, that are truly innovating, which is why this forum is important. And this panel represents 22 million people, and thus a sizeable proportion of the UK population. His brief under Sadiq Khan is to increase walking, cycling and public transport levels from an already enviable 68% to 80%. He reiterated the need for a plan at both national and local levels and said that London has done more partly because it is able to access funding differently. Some London policies such as safer trucks should be national, not just regional. Walking and cycling is as much about changing neighbourhoods as it is about travel: in streets that have had an active-travel upgrade, there tend to be fewer empty retail units. He closed by saying that the inactivity issue is very important in London, where 20% of children do not meet WHO activity criteria.
Andy Burnham then collected questions from the floor:
- A representative of Manchester University NHS Trust asked about the link between active travel and health, for instance in the context of social prescribing.
- A representative of the Ramblers reiterated the need for sustained funding and parity with other modes.
- A representative of the Urban Transport Group reiterated the points about the need for defined standards and funding as well as more action around road safety.
- A representative of the Global Action Plan, which is behind Clean Air Day, asked the panel what they would be doing on this year’s Clean Air Day (Thursday 20 June).
- Paul Tuohy, Chief Executive, of Cycling UK explained that he has been in post for five years and is now on his fourth minister with the active travel brief, which is part of the problem. He said in order to sell the issue to the UK populace we need a relatable PR campaign.
- A journalist from the Sunday Times addressed Andy Burnham, asking how he intends to bridge the gap between the £160 million currently committed to the Nee Network and the £1.5 billion that Chris Boardman says it needs.
- Journalist Laura Laker then asked what the world would look like if active travel were given the prominence it deserves.
- The final point from the floor came from Roger Geffen of Cycling UK, who said that the government’s minimum design standards looked pretty good but the challenge will be to ensure they are applied consistently.
Andy Burnham gave the panel the opportunity to pick which question to respond to.
Simon O’Brien said that on Clean Air Day he’ll be riding his bike like every day, and that initiatives like this need to be a focal point for broader activities.
Andy Burnham then said that he thinks this group should be formalised and meet, say, once a quarter, to which the others agreed.
Shanaze Reade said that on Clean Air Day she will be visiting a school, and that she thinks a campaign such as the recent This Girl Can would be effective.
Lee Craigie answered Laura Laker’s question by saying we wouldn’t need an active travel budget in that world, and made us all slightly jealous by saying that she’ll be spending Clean Air Day at home in the Scottish Highlands, where pretty much every day is Clean Air Day.
Will Norman answered the NHS point by saying that it’s not just about the health of the population, but also about the NHS as a major organisation: how its staff gets to work, how it organises its deliveries etc. And on Clean Air Day he’ll be at a play street in Great Ormond Street talking about London’s forthcoming car-free day.
Liam Robinson from Liverpool explained that the role of the Commissioners is to hold elected representatives to account, that the issues around active travel need to be popularised more and that Liverpool has a campaign called “Arrive Happy” that also focuses on the mental-health benefits of active travel.
Dan Jarvis reiterated the need to stress the link between active travel and health and well-being, that we should be talking about investment and not just funding, and that one possible upside of a Boris Johnson premiership may be an increased focus on active travel. On Clean Air Day he’ll be at the Transport for North summit with Andy Burnham.
Andy Burnham closed by addressing the funding point. He said that with matched funding the £160 million has become £205 million. But what we need to see is for the Transforming Cities fund to become permanent, and that we should await a potential spending review later in the year.
For us at WalkRide GM this was a fascinating overview of the current landscape in the UK at the present moment around the issues we campaign on. On the one hand, such a summit would have been a lonely affair for Will Norman just two or three years ago, and the fact that such an illustrious panel is now possible is testament to the increasing political significance of walking/cycling/active travel across the UK.
At the same time, there seemed to be a certain amount of improvisation going on: “Oh, you’re doing that in your region, let’s see how it works here”, which of course is a stark contrast to how roads are built. The key messages were around the need to ensure not only that national standards for cycling and walking are in place, but that they are observed in every single transport scheme across the UK, no matter what the funding stream. And most crucially: the fact that we don’t know where the next chunk of cash is coming from is playing on everyone’s minds, and it is essential that that is secured to end the previous cycle of stop-start funding, with the logical outcome of the all-too familiar stop-start infrastructure, which benefits no one.
The bottom line is that we’re on the right side of the argument, momentum is growing but we need to buckle up for the long haul. While we’ve made a lot of progress in a short time, we’re still very much at the start of this journey, and we hope you’ll stick with us in making Greater Manchester – and indeed all the other (city-)regions represented today – the best places for walking and cycling they can possibly be.