There is a huge focus on placing improved connectivity, infrastructure and better transport at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine but let us not forget the benefits to the nation of also getting walking and cycling onto the Devolution landscape.
Nothing much will happen on the ground unless government support is matched by action at local level, because active travel is fundamentally about local travel.
Look around the world – modern ‘smarter’ cities are prioritising attractive streets where people want to walk, work, study, shop, and simply hang out. New York, Brussels, Amsterdam and Shanghai are just a few cities that have introduced measures to enhance walking, with social and economic benefits for people and reductions in car traffic.
Some progress has been made here but there is still a very long way to go. In London the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street became an emblematic issue in the London mayoral election. In Manchester they paved much of its city centre retail area and are creating new cycle routes. In Edinburgh they are making 20mph the standard speed limit. Bristol is riding high in the new Smart City league table. Birmingham, has tamed the Bullring and are encouraging more children to walk to school. All good stuff for UK cities and for our general health, wealth and wellbeing but lots still to do. We all know that keeping active also counteracts many of the long-term illnesses that threaten to bankrupt the NHS and adult care therefore having big ideas on how best to increase active travel will become really important to local councils as they take on responsibility for public health.
Our cities are uniquely placed to bring about transformative change in terms of behaviour and all our cities in devo areas need to embed walking and cycling into their future devo plans. When big beasts like Andy Burnham are tipped to follow in the footsteps of Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan in the city mayor stakes there is a real opportunity to make a difference. Given cities are getting more transport powers, the Devo Mayoral candidates will need to get active travel on their radars and it is vital that they don’t simply get consumed with grand plans for trains, planes and automobiles but also make a serious pitch for active travel; it’s the future.
Without letting government off the hook, devolution is essential for a successful cycling and walking investment strategy. A message to all you cities out there – seize the moment to make your place an active travel city. Look around you. It really is the smart way forward.