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Making the case for active travel requires more evidence

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Over recent months, my colleagues have reviewed hundreds of studies on active travel, one of several policy areas increasingly seen as part of Levelling Up. I read the final draft of the Active Travel rapid evidence review shortly before it was published on our website. Having worked for many years on active travel, I was both heartened and disappointed by the findings.

Cycling infrastructure matters

First, the good news. There are some robust studies that show that cycling infrastructure increases rates of cycling. This included a study of mini-Holland schemes, and dedicated cycling infrastructure running along a guided busway or busy high streets. A Cycling SuperHighway study also finds that this dedicated infrastructure increased cycling flows without impacting on other traffic.

Testing that infrastructure affects cycling is important before you can look at whether cycling infrastructure improves health or economic outcomes. More good news is that several of these studies are from the UK—Outer London boroughs, central London, and Cambridgeshire. Often we draw on evaluations from other OECD countries because of a lack of evaluation in the UK on a particular policy area. To have UK examples is really helpful for people looking to apply results from these studies to their own local area.

We can’t say much about the impact of walking infrastructure

Now for the bad news. There just aren’t many robust studies on the impact of walking infrastructure on rates of walking. One study on high street improvements in Lisbon shows a positive effect on pedestrian volumes. Four studies found a positive effect on walking rates of ‘walkability’ features in neighbourhoods rather than specific infrastructure improvements, but these were less robust.

We need more robust evaluations

And some more bad news. None of the walking studies were from the UK. And for both cycling and walking combined, only four studies looked at economic outcomes, and none of these were from the UK. With the UK Government target to have “half of all journeys in towns and cities being cycled or walked by 2030” set in 2017, my hope is that there are robust evaluations in the pipeline that will be published soon.

The National Audit Office recently called for better monitoring and evaluation in their report, Active Travel in England. They recommend that the Department for Transport and Active Travel England include robust impact evaluations, particularly of pilot projects, to better understand the impact and value for money of walking and cycling infrastructure.

For a policy area that has had a lot of attention in the media, we need quality data and robust evaluations to support policymakers in their decision-making.