Active travel: planning for dynamic communities

Tackling the barriers to active travel involves planning and systems for change

Andrew Brown

14 Dec 2021

A lady cycling with two children at the front

Just Ride the Bike


Active travel plays a huge part in helping us to live healthier lives, alleviate stress and improve wellbeing. It helps to build physical activity into our everyday routines and, perhaps most importantly, is accessible to all. Having said this, for active travel to work properly, we need to build it into our planning systems, and this is not always easy.


While we might all agree that ditching our cars for healthier options is a good thing, everyone has an opinion on how the alternatives should look. For example, due to its prevalence, noisy campaigning and, for some people, nuisance level, cycling dominates the headlines and is sometimes considered separately from the other forms of active mobility. 


Since Covid, the UK government has backed councils to introduce traffic management schemes to encourage less car driving and more active travel – why, because it is good for the environment, better air quality helps mitigate risks of Covid infection, and more walking and cycling is, well, simply good for us all. However, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and school streets often frustrate drivers and worry local businesses. But the point is that active travel is not just about our environment or health. It is about creating healthy, dynamic communities. What’s more, there is data gathered from many years of research that shows that, contrary to popular arguments against LTNs and school streets, communities and businesses thrive as a result of people walking or cycling to and within them. People spend longer talking, chatting, shopping, drinking coffee etc, because the streets are quieter, safer, calmer. They are ‘living streets’.


This is core to active travel. But local politicians have to be brave to see past the initial noisy complaints. They need to visit the towns, cities and countries where it is succeeding – Walthamstow in east London for example, or towns or cities in Denmark or The Netherlands. What’s more, once councillors and their officers make the commitment – after community engagement, consultation and suitable ambitious budgeting – they need to stick to the plan and not be swayed by counterarguments or unwilling, ill-informed contractors or consultants.


Why? Well, active travel is comparatively new still. Worryingly, too much responsibility for active travel rests with transport teams dominated by highways engineers focused on building roads, who often do not understand the need to prioritise vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders as well as children, elderly and the disabled – and the need to design-in safe, active travel infrastructure.


One big argument for riding a bicycle (not to mention walking) is the impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. But with #COP26 on everyone’s minds and the #Earthshot prize fresh in many memories, it’s worth pointing out that a two-and half-mile journey by bike – in other words, the average commute and back to work, shops or school and back – will reduce CO2 emissions by almost two kilograms each day compared with the same journey done by car. Compare that to switching to renewable energy, insulating your home or planting 10 trees – these save between 0.5 and 0.7 kgCO2/day. Riding a bike is cheaper, more accessible and has a more immediate impact on our environment. 


We know that active travel works, for everyone and for the planet. This means we have to redouble the encouragement and support we give to individuals, families and communities in Gloucestershire to make part or all of a journey by physically active means.


Just Ride the Bike is running education and guidance courses for anyone delivering active travel – from builders and contractors to designers, planners consultants and policy officers – on behalf of Constructing Excellence in Wales with the help of Phil Jones Associates.


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Andrew Brown
14 Dec 2021

Andrew is a co-founder and director of Just Ride the Bike and a director of Frank & Brown.