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Little Progress on Active Travel Targets, says Public Accounts Committee

50% of trips by active travel, from Transport Decarbonisation Plan
50% of trips by active travel, from Transport Decarbonisation Plan

The government has made little progress on its active travel targets, according to a new report on Active Travel in England by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

The DfT estimates that every pound invested in active travel reaps £4.30 in benefits, but not enough is being done to monitor the impact of schemes, and local authorities do not have stability of funding.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Dame Meg Hillier MP said:

‘The government’s executive agency Active Travel England is off to a good start, but needs firm backing for it to maintain momentum.

Local authorities also require closer working and support to deliver successful schemes.

Billions in taxpayers’ money appears to have been parachuted in by DfT on active travel without its impact properly tracked. Without the evidence-based, collaborative and holistic approach now needed, the government’s ambitions in this area are likely to go into reverse gear’.

chair of the pac dame meg hillier mp

Progress on Active Travel Targets

The PAC report says that the government has made little progress on its objectives to increase active travel, and is not on track to meet its 2025 targets.

The targets were set by the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy in 2017 and CWIS2 in 2022. A CWIS3 is due in 2025.

The CWIS targets include having half of all trips in towns and cities walked or cycled by 2030, but there are other more near-term goals.

The 2025 objectives are to:

  • increase the percentage of short journeys in towns and cities that are walked or cycled from 41% in 2019 to 46% in 2025
  • increase walking activity to 365 stages per person per year
  • double rates of cycling of 0.8 billion stages in 2013 to 1.6 billion in 2025
  • increase the proportion of children aged 5 to 10 who usually walk to school from 49% in 2014 to 55% in 2025

According to the National Audit Office’s report in 2023, the first target of 46% was close to being met in 2021, but that may have been due to the pandemic effect.

For the other three objectives, levels of activity were lower in 2021 than when the DfT set the targets in 2017.

There has been no sustained increase in cycling rates.

DfT Monitoring of Impact of Investment

The DfT spent £2.3 billion on active travel infrastructure between 2016 and 2021, but it knows little about what this spending has achieved.

The PAC says that the DfT needs to do much more to evaluate active travel schemes, and to identify, track and communicate the benefits.

Local authorities are only required to monitor or evaluate schemes that cost more than £2 million, but the average grant per project from 2016 to 2021 was £750,000.

Active Travel England (ATE) is committed to supporting local authorities to collect robust and consistent data, without making the process too burdensome. It will have 18 staff on its analysis and evaluation team.

Active Travel England (ATE)

The PAC is complimentary about ATE.

ATE was set up in August 2022, and fully operational by August 2023. The PAC says ATE has made good early progress.

For example, the proportion of local authority cycle schemes that comply with Cycle Infrastructure Design guidance has increased from:

  • 6 out of 352 in 2021-22 (2%) to
  • 96 out of 590 in 2022-23 (16%)

ATE’s operational budget increased from £6 million in 2022-23 and is £7.5 million in 2023-24. It will increase again to £9 million in 2024-25.

The PAC recommends that the DfT reviews whether ATE has enough funding so that it can have an impact in carrying out its functions.

Coherent and Stable Funding for Local Authorities

The PAC report says that local authorities need a coherent and stable system of funding to enable them to take long-term spending decisions and work effectively.

Multiple funding streams for which councils must bid at short notice are unhelpful.

The DfT should set out how and when councils will provided with greater certainty about the funding available for active travel.

The problem of some councils’ lack of commitment to active travel, and incompetence, is overlooked by the PAC report. It does say that ATE expects to have a key role in developing the capability of councils.

‘This includes the ability of local authorities to plan local transport networks where active travel is integrated with other modes.’

‘ATE has begun its work with local authorities that it deemed to have lower capability and ambition in relation to active travel and is establishing ways of working with authorities to provide guidance and support. We note, however, that there is a long way to go to improve local authority capability and ambition’.

p16 of the pac report

There is indeed a long way to go with some authorities.

Perception of Safety

The report quotes the DfT saying that perceptions of safety are just as important as actual safety.

This is a wrong-headed way of looking at the problem. When you are close-passed while cycling, or put in danger by stupid driving, that is a real safety problem not a perceived safety problem.

Even you’re not injured or killed in a particular incident, it is real danger not perceived danger.

If the DfT is trying to solve an imaginary problem of perception of danger, not the actual danger itself, it is focusing on the wrong thing.

The report does say (p13) that the DfT is working with local authorities to consider how to design roads and junctions so that they are safer for all road users including pedestrians and cyclists.

Little Progress on Active Travel Targets, says Public Accounts Committee