Thursday, February 16, 2012

Is There Still An Active Travel Strategy?

A post in which I witter on about the politics (with a small p) of active travel. If you find this a bit boring you can skip to the end where there is some local interest in a link to a 1948 COI fi extolling the virtues of the New Towns
A couple of days ago I mentioned the ‘Active Travel Strategy’ had been pulled from the Department of Transport website but not from Department of Health’s. Interesting...
Public health is the reason there needs to be a policy to encourage behavioural change . We need to be more active because there is an obesity epidemic and the costs of dealing with all the related problems, such as diabetes, are rising fast and will be huge. These are costs for the health budget, which has burdens enough with an ageing population and the rising costs of treatments. However the expenditure for an infrastructure to encourage a healthy lifestyle would fall to transport, planning and leisure services departments and they do not necessarily have the same priorities.  The most likely bureaucratic outcome in such situations is nothing - stasis, inaction, a stand-off, followed by some empty gestures to show things have not been completely forgotten, whilst turf wars are fought.
Resolving overall priorities is what cabinet government is meant to be about but at any one time there is a clamour of urgent events forcing the long-term to take its place furtherand further back in the queue.
Especially when the health benefits are not direct and require a number of behavioural changes. It is impossible to say how many cases of diabetes will be avoided by an extra cycle path. You might have an enormous figure for the health implications of doing nothing but that is difficult to transfer to an individual planning application. 
In Victorian times there was a huge investment in public works to benefit public health as drains, sewers and water mains were built. But this was done to eliminate cholera, a disease that could strike anybody of any class.The cost was immediate and staring everybody on the face.  However obesity and health are mostly seen as lifestyle choices and matters of individual responsibility - there is not the same overwhelming urgency for collective action.
All of which is a long winded way of saying that I can understand the slow progress. In 2001 there was a Select Committee report on Walking in Towns and Cities, which concluded that pedestrians have been treated with contempt. Since then there has been little direct action. Cycling has fared a bit better and starting in 2005 there were some demonstration projects to increase the use of bikes in designated cycling towns. But now the body that organised those schemes (Cycling England) has been abolished and the largely positive evaluation report has been deposited in the National Archives 
As far as the Department of Transport is concerned the whole Active Travel Strategy seems to have gone to the same place. It does not help that the Department is car-centric with many of the new ministers pledging to end the war on the motorist. What war was that? As well as walking and cycling I also drive a car and I have failed to see the bullets.
The attitude of the Minister in charge of roads, road safety and deregulation (Mike Penning, MP for, ahem, Hemel Hempstead) is shown in these notes of a meeting he had with some cycling representatives. It does not give one a lot of hope.
But all is not lost. Although walking is still not treated with enough seriousness, there is some momentum behind cycling. The focus is very much on safety because that is an issue with direct impact (and the Times has to be commended for putting so much weight behind their  #cyclesafe campaign ) but if if that can cause a rethink in the provision of separated cycle paths and the design of junctions, we may be able to edge towards Amsterdam or Copenhagen
Actually planning for active communities is not new. It was widely accepted as a good idea in the post war period and was embodied in the layout of the first generation of New Towns (e.g. Hemel), as  illustrated in this rather wonderful COI film of the time. 

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