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The Conservative Case for Active Travel

Background and Context

The government has had what might be argued as a road to Damascus conversion to the benefits of active travel. Others might argue Boris has always been keen on cycling. Either way, Boris wants us all to get fit and he likes cycling as a means to get about.

Boris himself says:

I have always known that millions more people in this country want to cycle, if the conditions are right, and the past four months have proved it. The joy of cycling is that doing it doesn’t just benefit you. It doesn’t just make you happier. It doesn’t just make you healthier. It helps millions of others too, whether or not they have any intention of getting on a bike. It means less pollution and less noise for everyone. It means more trade for street-front businesses. It means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.

Boris Johnson – Conservative Prime Minister

But what is ‘active’ travel and why should it matter to Conservatives, especially those on local councils?

Hey Siri, define Active Travel:

Active mobility, active travel, active transport or active transportation is the transport of people or goods, through non-motorized means, based around human physical activity. The best-known forms of active mobility are walking and cycling, though other modes include running, skateboarding, kick scooters and roller skates.

Wikipedia

This article will look at the case for active travel from two perspectives initially, which I’ve geared towards Conservative thinking:

I’m approaching this from the local government level as that’s where I’m placed as Deputy Leader of Redditch Borough Council. I’m on a journey with Active Travel myself – I’m a very overweight car-loving Tory who doesn’t exercise anywhere near enough and spends far too much time online. If I can ‘get’ this there’s no excuse for anyone else!

Here goes:

Health and well-being and the social care perspective

TL:DR – More people cycling means fitter people. Fitter people means less long term demand for social care. Less demand means less cost. Fitter people also survive COVID-19 more than unfit people.

Tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges this country faces. Today, around two-thirds (63%) of adults are above a healthy weight, and of these half are living with obesity. We have 1 in 3 children leaving primary school who are already overweight or living with obesity.

Obesity prevalence is highest amongst the most deprived groups in society. Children in the most deprived parts of the country are more than twice as likely to be obese as their peers living in the richest areas. This is sowing the seeds of adult diseases and health inequalities in early childhood.

As an elected representative of one of the most deprived areas in Worcestershire I am duty-bound to be vocal on this issue.

Obesity is associated with reduced life expectancy. It is a risk factor for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, at least 12 kinds of cancer, liver and respiratory disease, and obesity can impact on mental health.

Our country’s rates of obesity are storing up future problems for individuals and our NHS. But worryingly, there is now consistent evidence that people who are overweight or living with obesity who contract coronavirus (COVID-19) are more likely to be admitted to hospital, to an intensive care unit and, sadly to die from COVID-19 compared to those of a healthy body weight status. Obesity has become an immediate concern for anyone who is overweight and for our health and care services.

Lots of people who are overweight or living with obesity want to lose weight but find it hard. Many people have tried to lose weight but struggle in the face of endless prompts to eat – on TV and on the high street. In supermarkets, special offers and promotions tempt us to buy foods that are not on the shopping list but are hard to resist. When we eat out, we have little information about how many calories are in the food we are offered. We are biologically programmed to eat and when we are bombarded by advertisements and promotions for food – it’s hard to eat healthily, especially if we are busy or tired or stressed.

Worcestershire Obesity Figures

Figures for obesity across Worcestershire paint a worrying picture.

The data from Public Health England shows that across Worcestershire we are in ‘red alert’ in general. In Worcester City the rate for adults is 69.7% and it’s 69.1% in Wyre Forest. Redditch comes third at 65.8%, but note how Redditch starts in the green with the lowest rate of Reception-age obesity in the county before increasing in Year 6 and then getting worse into adulthood.

Obesity is not something you’re born with – it’s something you develop over time through a complex mixture of reasons – some self-inflicted and some inflicted or heavily influenced by others.

The data would suggest a reasonable conclusion: catch it early.

Wikipedia’s definition goes on:

Public policies promoting active mobility tend to improve health indicators by increasing the levels of physical fitness and reducing the rates of obesity and diabetes, whilst also reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and consequent carbon emissions. These policies are proven to result in large increases in active transportation for commuting: for example Portland, Oregon was able to increase bicycle use 5-fold from 1990 to 2009 with pro-cycling programs. Studies have shown that city level programs are more effective than encouraging active mobility on the individual level.

Wikipedia

Internal Policy Processes

TL:DR – Party policy is rooted in the manifesto but it’s fluid. If a minister says it, it basically becomes policy. Ministers have spoken loudly on active travel and backed it with money. It’s also been policy since 2017 and through two general elections, including a commitment in the 2019 manifesto.

A message from the boss – Boris Johnson

The Conservative-run government published its strategy for cycling and walking investment in April 2017. This public policy document has therefore been through two general elections and is still standing. It says:

The Government wants walking and cycling to be a normal part of everyday life, and the natural choices for shorter journeys such as going to school, college or work, travelling to the station, and for simple enjoyment. As part of our aim to build a society that works for all, we want more people to have access to safe, attractive routes for cycling and walking by 2040.

Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy 2017

It’s not like this ambition is buried – it’s on page 7 and comes across very clearly with even the most cursory read of the document. See what I mean:

The government outlined its approach strongly in 2017 – before two general elections were later fought.

More Recent DFT Announcements

Even if we forget the 2017 document we can rely on 2020’s publication: Gear change: a bold vision for cycling and walking

This document is a 52-page treasure trove of information about two methods of active travel: cycling and walking. Some points made include:

What the manifesto says

A key consideration for all Conservatives at all levels is to look at the party manifesto for at least the last election if not the one before.

In 2019 it said:

We will support commuter cycling routes, so that more people can
cycle safely to work and more families can go out together.

Conservative Party Manifesto 2019

It goes on:

We will extend Bikeability – cycling proficiency training – to every child. And we will work with the NHS to promote cycling for healthier living.

Conservative Party Manifesto

See the point at the start of this article about ‘catching it early’.

In conclusion, therefore, I am satisfied as a local Conservative Party representative that Active Travel is compatible with the party’s manifesto, and the Emergency Travel Fund is a means of implementing it. I can see there are clear policy grounds, established for at least two years.

Public Opinion

Elections are won on the back of public opinion – get on the wrong side of it and you’re doomed.

On active travel it’s all about choice – it’s not car versus cycle – you don’t have to pick a side.

But what does public opinion say on cycling and active travel? Let’s hear from Boris Johnson again:

When I was mayor of London, one of the things I was proudest of was
building some of the world’s best cycle lanes. It was often difficult and we faced opposition. But when the results of consultations and opinion polls came back, our opponents were often surprised to find themselves in a small minority. People want the radical change we are committing to in this strategy, and we politicians shouldn’t be afraid to give it to them.

Boris Johnson – Conservative Prime Minister

At the time of writing there has been data to suggest that the public is actually fearful of cycling – something that can be solved with infrastructure investment.

Figures from the government’s National Travel Attitudes Study showed 66% of adults in England said it was “dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”, up from 61% a year before and the highest figure for more than a decade.

The Guardian

The minister responsible goes on to say how the government intends to tackle it:

Asked about people’s safety worries, Heaton-Harris said: “I know from talking to people, and looking at my very active cycling social media response, that dedicated infrastructure is essential to make people feel safe.

“One of the big parts of this investment is to try and make the streets safer for people to cycle on. I tend to believe that in cycling, it’s very much Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams territory: if you build it, they will come.”

The Guardian

It is vitally important therefore that Conservative Councillors and activists such as me get behind the agenda and encourage investment by councils into cycle infrastructure at the local level. Perhaps now my colleagues might understand why I am so vocal on this issue.

To wrap up with, here’s some snippets from Twitter – if you’ve got some to add just email mike@mikerouse.uk and I’ll embed it later.