Cycling and walking targets “in tatters”: Damning report finds government almost certain to fail on active travel objectives in England

Cycling campaign groups have claimed that plans to boost cycling and walking in England are “in tatters”, after a damning report by the government’s official spending watchdog found that the Department for Transport (DfT) is almost certain to fall short of its active travel targets, thanks to its inability to influence the poor design and “patchy” delivery of some local schemes.

According to the report published today by the National Audit Office, the Department for Transport is highly unlikely to achieve any of its four goals for active travel by 2025, including doubling the number of cycling trips, increasing the proportion of primary school children cycling, ensuring that almost half of short urban journeys are walked, cycled, or wheeled, and having an average of 365 ‘walked’ stages of travel per person a year.

In fact, with the exception of the last of these targets, the report found that the levels of activity for these measures are lower than they were when the government published its first Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for England in 2017.

The damning report comes in the same week that it was revealed that the government is facing a legal challenge from a campaign group over its cut to investment in walking and cycling in England, which some estimate will lead to two thirds of the previously promised funding being lost.

Published today, the NAO report concluded that, despite spending £2.3bn funding councils to build active travel infrastructure between 2016 and 2021, the DfT – thanks to the lack of, until recently, guidelines for how this infrastructure should be implemented – “knew too little” about what was being delivered, and therefore was not able to influence the quality of these local schemes.

The DfT, the report says, “does not know the totality of what local authorities have achieved through this funding and has identified that infrastructure it has funded may not have been good enough quality, including where interventions were largely cosmetic and did not provide a safe space for cycling.”

It continued: “This resulted in some poor value schemes and potential adverse impacts on active travel in some cases.”

The failure to properly assess the quality of schemes implemented by local authorities is compounded by the recent review, noted in the NAO’s report, from Active Travel England – the government body set up last year for that very purpose – which found that 56 percent of councils possess “low capability and ambition” for cycling and walking initiatives.

The report also criticised the department’s decision to rush out active travel schemes during the Covid-19 pandemic, a decision – made in part to facilitate social distancing – which “led to some poor investments”.

By focusing on the speed of delivery (councils were expected to start working on the schemes within four weeks of receiving the funding), the report says initiatives were poorly implemented “in places where plans had not been developed before the pandemic and local communities were not adequately consulted”.

The report also noted that “some active travel schemes were removed prematurely before they could be tested properly because they proved controversial”.

However, the watchdog did conclude that, despite the DfT’s failings over the past seven years, the formation of Active Travel England can prove a “catalyst” for boosting walking, cycling, and wheeling numbers.

Emphasising the need for a stable and long-term approach to active travel funding, the report said that “Active Travel England has made good early progress and is well-placed to address many of the issues that can lead to poor quality active travel schemes. Maintaining this early momentum from the set-up of Active Travel England will be important to securing the benefits for transport, health, and the environment and achieving value for money from government’s investment in active travel.”

Is the government “backpedalling on its promises”?

Nevertheless, despite this apparent cause for (relative) optimism, cycling campaign groups across the UK have responded to the NAO’s report by arguing that years of “stop-start” funding have left the government’s cycling and walking ambitions “in tatters”, leaving behind a legacy of unsafe roads, poor air quality, and reduced public health.

Members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance, which includes groups such as British Cycling, Cycling UK, and Living Streets, welcomed the report and called on the government to publish its own evidence for the funding required to achieve its objectives for 2025 and 2030.

“It’s clear the Government has backpedalled on its promises, and is missing an easy win on the path to achieving Net Zero commitments, with proven benefits for public health,” Sustrans CEO Xavier Brice said today.

“This report reveals that active travel objectives are in tatters, and only serves to highlight that long-term and ring-fenced investment can transform lives, if done well.”

Sarah Mitchell, the CEO at Cycling UK, added: “The National Audit Office has confirmed what Cycling UK and others have been saying for years, namely that the government hasn’t committed adequate funds to achieve its own targets to increase walking and cycling.

“However, we’re pleased the report recognises the formation of Active Travel England as a positive step in the right direction. The government now needs to publish its own evidence on the level of funding needed, and then increase existing funding to enable Active Travel England to deliver the government’s goals.”

Earlier this week, we reported that the government is facing a legal challenge from a campaign group over its decision to slash investment in walking and cycling in England, as lawyers acting on behalf of Transport Action Network (TAN) have written to the DfT seeking a judicial review into the cuts.

TAN claims that the active travel budget cuts bypassed legal processes and risk undermining commitments about air pollution and the climate emergency.

The cuts, announced in March, were slammed at the time as “a backward move” by the Walking and Cycling Alliance (WACA), who estimated that two thirds of previously promised funding would be lost, making it “impossible” to meet Net Zero and active travel targets.

As pointed out in Parliament by SNP MP Gavin Newlands a month later, the slash to the active travel budget means that less than £1 per head will be spent in England outside of London versus £50 per head in Scotland.

Responding to the NAO’s report, a DfT spokesperson said today: “We are committed to ensuring that more people choose to walk, wheel and cycle across England and that’s why we are investing £3bn up to 2025, more than any previous government, to help people choose active travel.

“ATE was established last year to drive up standards of active travel schemes, working closely with local authorities to make sure they deliver high quality schemes which work for, and encourage, local residents to travel actively.”


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