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Stepping up evaluation of active travel

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Last week, the National Audit Office published a new report on Active Travel in England. While noting that the Department for Transport (DfT) has clear objectives for increasing active travel, the report raises concerns about evaluation of locally delivered projects, and more generally about plans for ascertaining the benefits of active travel investments. Some of the NAO’s recommendations align closely with what we at What Works Growth think are important steps to take.

Supporting local places

One of these recommendations is for Active Travel England (ATE) to lead on developing rigorous approaches to evaluating new DfT-funded active travel pilots and to maximise learning from them. This would be a positive development. As we note in other blogs, local authorities often lack the capacity to run evaluations themselves. A central agency that can support strong evaluations would be an important step in increasing the amount of impact evaluations of local interventions – essential for building an understanding of what policies best achieve better uptake of, and outcomes from, active travel.

Harmonising data

The NAO recommendation for ATE to “develop a clear, consistent framework for standardised local data collection to provide baselines and inform scheme evaluations…” is particularly important. Lack of good data, or problems with the link between policy areas and geographic areas, holds back good monitoring and evaluation. But ATE will need to ensure that work to do this is coordinated with similar projects across government. The Government Statistical Service’s (GSS) subnational data strategy, published in 2021 and led by the ONS, also aims to develop more harmonised data, and the Spatial Data Unit within the Department for Levelling Up will operate in a similar space. There is a risk that multiple harmonised data frameworks in different parts of government will add up to a disharmonised web of competing standards. Cross-government collaboration will be key to avoiding that.

Impact evaluation is key

More broadly, the report suggests that DfT and ATE work together to develop a strategy for monitoring the impact active travel has on other government priorities and areas. For example, DfT expect benefits from active travel interventions to include reductions in unemployment, improved productivity, and higher footfall for local businesses – all of which have implications for other government departments and wider government priorities. The NAO report notes that while DfT has begun work to understand what is effective in increasing levels of active travel, there has been less done on understanding impact on these wider outcomes. Monitoring alone may not be enough – robust impact evaluation may be needed for understanding the wider effects of active travel. As we have argued for other policy areas, demonstrating wider positive impacts through evaluation may be vital for the political sustainability of sometimes controversial policies.

Off the back of the NAOs report, DfT and ATE have an opportunity to position ATE as an important evidence broker in active travel policy. If the agency supports the creation of new evidence by helping local areas monitor and evaluate interventions, while also working with DfT and across government to harmonise data collection, then it will prove an invaluable aide to both local and central government in reaching the active travel ambitions of each.