A ‘gear change’ for walking and cycling: UK government announces ambitious plans

On 28th July, the government published its plans to get Britain cycling Gear change: A bold vision for cycling and walking. Successive governments have made such announcements, but this time it looks like they really mean it. This article summarises the main points of the report. Accompanying the report is long-awaited updated guidance for designing cycling infrastructure (LTN 1/20). These two documents are ground-breaking in their ambition and a must-read for anyone who is interested in making better towns and cities.

Here in Newcastle we have experienced first-hand the problems of short-term funding, lack of design guidance and difficulties in reallocating road space from driving to walking and cycling (see our reply to the climate change consultation here). This reports sets out in detail how the government proposes to address these issues. For an ambitious local authority, active travel and place-making look to have a bright future.

The introduction to ‘Gear change: A bold vision for cycling and walking’ has some useful infographics and sets out the benefits of active travel:

‘Increasing cycling and walking can help tackle some of the most challenging issues we face as a society – improving air quality, combatting climate change, improving health and wellbeing, addressing inequalities and tackling congestion on our roads.’ (p.8)

Infographics on benefits of active travel, from Gear change: A bold vision for cycling and walking, p.9

Emphasising that action is required, not just words, it is clear on the key role of infrastructure in enabling people to change how they travel:

‘We need to take action to tackle the main barriers. We need to attract people to active travel by building better quality infrastructure’ and ‘we need to ensure active travel is embedded in wider policy making, and want to encourage and empower local authorities to take bold decisions’ (p.13)

Four themes are then discussed in more detail, summarised here:

  1. Better streets for cycling and people
  • Protection for cycling is required both at junctions and on links, painted cycle lanes and space shared with pedestrians will no longer be funded, existing facilities should be upgraded. There is a need for: ‘Safe continuous direct routes for cycling in towns and cities, physically separated from pedestrians and volume motor traffic, serving the places that people want to go’ (p.16).
  • Directness of cycling routes is vital and this means a combination of protection on main roads and routes through areas with point closures. Some main road corridors from key suburbs into a city could become bus and cycling corridors, with motor traffic removed from these.
  • More low traffic neighbourhoods, with modal filters making streets safe for walking and cycling and reducing pollution and noise for residents.
  • Increase the number of school streets
  • Local authorities across the country can bid for ‘Mini-Holland’ funding: ‘We will choose up to 12 willing local authority areas to benefit from intensive investment in Mini-Holland schemes’ (p.19)
  • Higher standards (see LTN 1/20): ‘We will expect Local Authorities and developers to utilise the guidance in the design of their schemes regardless of whether they are seeking government funding’ (p.20)
Key design principles, from Gear change: A bold vision for cycling and walking, p.21

2. Putting cycling and walking at the heart of transport, place-making and health policy

  • Increase in spending – £2 billion announced (although when compared to £27 billion budget for road building this looks less impressive!)
  • End to stop-start funding to allow LAs to plan more effectively
  • More cycle infrastructure on strategic A road schemes
  • Improvements to modelling tools to account for health and sustainability benefits of active travel
  • More bikes on trains and buses
  • More cycle parking
  • New developments to be designed around walking and cycling: ‘We will ensure that all new housing and business developments are built around making sustainable travel, including cycling and walking, the first choice for journeys’
  • Street audits to establish where road space can be reallocated

3. Empowering and encouraging local authorities

  • Significantly increasing funding for local authorities
  • Significantly improved capacity and assistance for local authorities
  • New powers for local authorities – to enforce moving traffic offences
  • Funding only schemes which meet the new standards: ‘we will not allow any other agency or body to fund such schemes… this includes schemes delivered through pots such as Transforming Cities Fund’
  • Time limits to deliver schemes – all future funding will be conditional on work starting and finishing by specified dates.
  • A new funding body and inspectorate, Active Travel England, will be set up to enforce the standards and time limits and raise performance. Highways authorities will be inspected and graded. These assessments will influence the funding authorities receive for other forms of transport.

4. We will enable people to cycle and protect them when they cycle

  • Increased cycle training
  • GPs to prescribe cycling
  • Bike theft tackled
  • Increased penalties for dangerous driving offences
  • Consulting on updates to highway code
  • Safety standards on HGVs
  • Incentives for ebikes

Finally, an appendix lists the summary principles of the design guidance LTN 1/20. It’s worth setting out these 22 principles in full because of their potentially transformative impact on cycling infrastructure:

  1. Cycle infrastructure should be accessible to everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond: it should be planned and designed for everyone.
  2. Cycles must be treated as vehicles and not as pedestrians. On urban streets, cyclists must be physically separated from pedestrians and should not share space with pedestrians. Where cycle routes cross pavements, a physically segregated track should always be provided. At crossings and junctions, cyclists should not share the space used by pedestrians but should be provided with a parallel route.
  3. Cyclists must be physically separated and protected from high volume motor traffic, both at junctions and on the stretches of road between them.
  4. Side street routes, if closed to through traffic to avoid rat-running, can be an alternative to segregated facilities on main roads – but only if they are truly direct.
  5. Cycle infrastructure should be designed for significant numbers of cyclists, and for non-standard cycles.
  6. Consideration of the opportunities to improve provision for cycling will be an expectation of any future local highway schemes funded by Government.
  7. Largely cosmetic interventions which bring few or no benefits for cycling or walking will not be funded from any cycling or walking budget.
  8. Cycle infrastructure must join together, or join other facilities together by taking a holistic, connected network approach which recognises the importance of nodes, links and areas that are good for cycling.
  9. Cycle parking must be included in substantial schemes, particularly in city centres and in areas where people cannot store their bikes at home.
  10. Schemes must be legible and understandable.
  11. Schemes must be clearly and comprehensively signposted and labelled.
  12. Major ‘iconic’ items, such as overbridges, must form part of wider, properly thought-through schemes.
  13. As important as building a route itself is maintaining it properly after.
  14. Surfaces must be hard, smooth, level, durable, permeable and safe in all weathers.
  15. Trials can help achieve change and ensure a permanent scheme is right first time.
  16. Access control measures, such as chicane barriers and dismount signs, should not be used.
  17. The simplest, cheapest interventions, such as modal filters, can be the most effective.
  18. Cycle routes must flow, feeling direct and logical.
  19. Schemes must be easy and comfortable to ride, not imposing constant stopping and starting or unnecessary level changes.
  20. All designers of cycle schemes must experience the roads as a cyclist.
  21. Schemes must be consistent.
  22. When to break these principles – exceptions to the principles above should be rare.

We look forward to seeing this translate into changes on our streets. We have seen very slow progress on cycling schemes in the region over the last few years and hope that Government oversight will mean delivery speeds up. Councils need to move much faster if they are serious about enabling people to change how they travel. We need a roll-out of temporary schemes, following the excellent model that councils are currently using in response to Covid-19, so that people don’t have to wait for years while new permanent schemes are progressed. We also need to see temporary schemes and trials monitored and evaluated in a transparent way to inform local decision-making and next steps, including the retention of schemes. A walking and cycling revolution is within our grasp!