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Planners must step out of their 'bubbles' to advocate sustainable transport change

Words: Simon Wicks
Cycling and walking / iStock-157507569

Advocacy that goes beyond the professional ‘bubble’ is critical if the transition to more sustainable transport in towns and cities is to be accelerated in our towns and cities.

That was the message from London’s walking and transport commissioner Will Norman in his keynote speech to the Transport Planning Society’s virtual conference for Transport Planning Day today (16 November).

Acknowledging that proposing changes to transport systems provoked strong “passions”, Norman said that local objections to low traffic neighbourhoods could be one of the biggest obstacles he had to deal with in planning for and implementing them.

Yet the evidence suggested that such schemes brought clear benefits to communities. “In Waltham Forest, you’ve seen an increase in physical activity [since the introduction of a low traffic neighbourhood],” he observed. “The average resident walks 42 minutes per week more than they did before. 

“We also need to make the case,” he continued. “There’s a case for health, the environment and for transport. But there’s also an economic uplift. Walking and cycling are good for businesses. Where we’ve made changes there’s 40 per cent more spend in local shops.”

Citing the evidence was critical. But transport planners and others working in the sector “live in a bubble sometimes”, Norman asserted. “The walking and cycling commissioner telling people that walking and cycle is good is hardly news. We need a diverse community of champions they could be doctors, business leaders, mums. How do we make sure that this is a conversation around the school gates that permeates into communities?”

In answer to his own questions, Norman who said he had insisted on 'walking' being included into his job title alongside 'cycling' since “almost every journey starts and finishes with a walk” emphasised the role that businesses in particular could take in providing leadership in the drive towards more sustainable modes of transport. This was particularly important at a time Covid-19 could, feasibly, push people permanently off public transport. “If a fraction of those journeys shift to cars we’re going to create a congestion and toxic air crisis.”

A major barrier to participation was safety, he acknowledged. So highways authorities needed to invest more in making the case for safe walking and cycling infrastructure, implementing it and then championing its use. Businesses in particular had a role to play here. 

“If senior people are seen to be walking and cycling […] setting that culture within an organisation is the first and most important thing that people can do.” But businesses can also put physical measures in place, such as showers and secure cycle parking, as well as advertising cycle to work schemes that provide access to subidised bikes.

The walking and cycling commissioner was able to point to a number of successes in his work with Transport for London (TfL). They had tripled the amount of protected cycle lanes since his appointment, for example. They had rolled out a programme of low traffic neighbourhoods as part of TfLs’s Safe Streets for London programme and had seen the highest increase in cycling on record. Crucially, however, Norman said the achievement of which he was most proud was implementing the first ‘vision standard’ for heavy goods vehicles in London. This standard, which prevents goods vehicles that don’t meet certain visibility standards from entering London, was about to be integrated into a Europe-wide standard and would, Norman said, save “thousands of lives across the whole continent”.

But the best way for culture to change, he said, was for professionals and campaigners to present people with persuasive evidence that challenged their objections to safer walking and cycling measures. “We all have a responsibility to talk to people outside our social bubbles to engage them.”

The Transport Planning Day conference’s first session also saw a presentation from the winner of the society's 2019 bursary competition, Georgia Corr, a transport planner at Ealing Council, for her research into the impacts of food delivery services on city streets. Corr made the notable point that her research had discovered that, despite evidence showing that bicycles were in fact the most "efficient" delivery mode for takeaway food, Deliveroo’s algorithm had recently been changed to give more jobs to delivery drivers using motorised transport. This had caused cycle delivery riders to experience a drop in income, to the extent that a significant proportion were now considering buying a moped so they could regain lost work even though mopeds were more costly to run, less efficient at deliveries and created pollution.

Read more from the Transport Planning Society conference:

Planners integral to decarbonising transport, says minister

Image credit | iStock