Hertfordshire County Council recently published its Draft Active Travel Strategy for consultation. This is an amalgamation of the previous Walking and Cycling Strategies and discusses the benefits of Active Travel, primarily bettering public health, reducing congestion and improving air quality in Hertfordshire.
Before discussing this document I should give some relevant background information about myself. I live in Hatfield and own both a car and a motorbike, but my primary method of travel is cycling. If I am just going into town I sometimes walk but anything further and I normally get the bike out. My most common journeys are to Welwyn Garden City, St Albans and Hertford, all of which I consider to be within easy cycling distance. When I go to London I take my bike on the train as it is the quickest and cheapest way to get around. I am a member of the Welwyn Hatfield Cycling Forum, a cycling representative on the Hertfordshire Local Access Forum and have been involved in setting up a new county-wide cycling campaign called CycleHerts.
The Draft Active Travel Strategy is a fairly lengthy document but the over-arching objective is simply “To increase the levels of walking and cycling in the county, particularly for shorter journeys, for a positive effect on individual health, the environment and the economy”. The strategy adopts the long term targets for walking and cycling from the Local Transport Plan (LTP3) – targets for the percentage of all journeys under 1 mile in length by walking and under three miles in length by cycling. I have a number of problems with the targets. First of all they seem very unambitious. For walking the target is to achieve an increase from the 2011 figure of 58.9% to 64% by 2015/16 and the corresponding cycling target is to increase from 2.7% to 3%. Surely we can do better than than that?
Lack of ambition however is not the only problem and I would question the indicators themselves. Why the percentage of journeys rather than percentage of distance travelled? And why ignore walking journeys longer than a mile and (more significantly) cycling journeys longer than three miles? Of course I understand that it is easier to get people out of their cars for short journeys than for long ones, but all the benefits are correspondingly greater for the longer journeys. I would suggest using a single core indicator to judge the success of the strategy, and that is simply the percentage of distance travelled by active modes for all journeys within Hertfordshire.
Of course the main problem for the County Council is working out how to best target resources in order to increase that percentage (or equivalently decrease the percentage of distance travelled by non-active modes). They may decide that it is still most beneficial to target only shorter journeys but at least they would have to consider longer ones. At the moment, even if there was a cheap way of improving the cycle network which would result in lots more people cycling a four mile route to work instead of driving, the County Council would have no incentive to implement it because it would not contribute to meeting their narrowly defined targets.
I am also a little worried that by combining walking and cycling into a single strategy cycling may end up with less attention than it deserves. Let me just give one example to illustrate my fears. Imagine someone on low income who has no bike or car and regularly walks to the shops a mile away. As far as the County Council is concerned they are already practicing active travel and there would be no reason to encourage them to cycle. However, for the individual concerned cycling could be a boon, cutting their journey time by a factor of three and allowing them to carry more shopping in comfort. Having realised how easy it is to get around by bike they might start riding further (replacing some bus journeys by cycling for example) and this makes it more likely that they will choose to stay car-free if and when their financial circumstances improve. What I am trying to say is that there could be significant knock on benefits as a result of getting people on bikes even if it is only initially replacing walking trips – this needs to be considered.