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Does active travel have local economic benefits?

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Blog co-authored by Policy Officer Will Brett-Harding

Last week the government announced a new £200m fund for Local Authorities to support interventions for active travel. The fund focuses on walking and cycling routes, and aims to help reduce emissions, boost local economies, and create jobs.

Active travel involves making journeys by physically active means such as walking and cycling. While the link to emissions is obvious, we know less about the local economic impacts. This blog summarises what we do know, building on the evidence from an ongoing project looking at wider interventions aimed at improving local growth.

Can the right infrastructure increase active travel?

Our project focuses on evaluations of infrastructure for walking and cycling, such as footpaths, cycle paths, pedestrianisation, and traffic calming measures.

A first step in generating local benefits is that the infrastructure must be used. The evidence suggests that is the case – improved cycling or walking infrastructure have positive effects on cyclist and pedestrian volumes. It also shows that these increases were highly localised.

The two most robust studies look at the impact of segregated cycle lanes and of mini-Holland schemes to make neighbourhoods more cycle-friendly, both in London.

Segregated cycle lanes produced big increases in cycling flows, that persist and grow over time. These increases did not come at the expense of motor traffic volume (a possibility given the cycle lanes took road-space). This could be a positive or a negative. It suggests the lanes were not so disruptive to drivers that motor traffic was reduced or diverted elsewhere. But it also suggests the lanes did not reduce the number of people driving, and so may not have had an impact on other objectives such as reducing air pollution.

The mini-Holland schemes involved introducing segregated cycling lanes and traffic calming measures for residential streets. Cycling and walking increased in these areas, but the study does not look at the impact of other forms of travel, so we do not know about the net effects on travel from these interventions.

Evidence from other studies suggests an association between built environment interventions for ‘walkability’ and increases in walking and other forms of active travel. However, this evidence is hard to interpret. The definition of ‘walkability’ differs across studies, and results are mixed in terms of who walks more and what neighbourhood characteristics may matter. It is also unclear whether reverse causality (i.e., people that walk more choose to live in more walkable neighbourhoods) explains any positive associations between ‘walkability’ and physical activity in those areas.

What about local economic impacts?

These investments and any associated increases in walking and cycling can bring local economic benefits in several ways. The infrastructure may improve accessibility to or from locations. For example, people may use the infrastructure to help access local shops, resulting in improved footfall for retail businesses. Or people may use the infrastructure to commute from home to work, thus making housing near to schemes more attractive. The infrastructure may also provide amenity benefits if it results in modal shift from motor-vehicles, thus raising the attractiveness of location – to shoppers or homeowners, respectively in these two examples. These amenity benefits may arise for people who do not use the infrastructure for active travel. If the active travel infrastructure improvement comes at the expense of motor-vehicle infrastructure – for example, because a cycle lane reduces road capacity – these accessibility and amenity benefits may be offset by costs for individuals who are unwilling or unable to shift from motor-vehicles to active travel modes.

These benefits and costs will tend to be localised, occurring at locations on or close to the infrastructure investment. What do we know about these impacts? Here, unfortunately, the evidence is less clear cut. The limited evidence available considers different outcomes and interventions with mixed findings that mean it is difficult to draw any general conclusions on whether investment in active travel infrastructure affects local economic growth.

Some lessons on active travel

While it is hard to reach general conclusions, thinking about accessibility versus amenity differences may help local areas assess the likely impact of different schemes.

It is important to be realistic about economic impacts. To the extent that they occur, they are likely to be highly localised. In principle, as active travel infrastructure investments are an addition to the transport network, they may also offer economic benefits at larger spatial scales if they improve the functioning of the whole network. But given the evidence, and the amounts announced in the fund, such large scale effects seem less likely.

Finally, success in increasing active travel will require coordination with other policy areas. Making walking easier or more attractive can increase walking but many other neighbourhood design or built environment factors also play a role. Local cycling infrastructure can have a big effect on cycling in the immediate area near the new infrastructure, but broader system wide impacts are likely to need additional complementary investments in behaviour change to raise the share of cycling as a mode of transport.

We will publish the full rapid evidence review shortly. Sign up to our newsletter for updates on this, and for details of our full publications on wider interventions and outcomes over the next few months.