It might not have been front-page news, but history was made (quietly) in Wales on 1 October with the passing of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. Celebrated as a “world first”, the bill aims to create a safer and more practical environment in Wales in which to travel actively (e.g. by walking or cycling, rather than driving or taking public transport). As someone who is interested in how we can best support people to adopt and maintain active travel behaviours, I had been keenly following developments of this bill. However, perhaps controversially, I believe that the bill may not go far enough. While legislation of this sort is unprecedented, it is perhaps not revolutionary.
What will the bill do?
The legislation sets out that this is an ongoing process to identify and improve the walking and cycling environment in Wales to make active travel a safe and practical alternative to motorised transport.
As a result of the bill, local authorities (LAs) in Wales will have to create maps to inform people of existing walking and cycling routes and facilities (such as secure bike storage, shelters, and signage) in the local area. The routes will be those identified as ‘safe’ and ‘appropriate’ for active travel by the local authorities through consultation with current users. LAs will also be required to map future (new or improved) routes and facilities to create an integrated network, allowing active travel to be incorporated into longer journeys. When preparing transport policies, LAs will have to have to take into account these integrated-network maps. They will also have to ‘secure’ new and improved active travel routes, although how this is to be achieved is vague. Welsh ministers will be obliged to report on walking and cycling rates in Wales, to monitor the effects of the bill on active travel.
What does this mean for the people of Wales?
These directives are targeted at local authorities and Welsh ministers, but what about the people of Wales? The bill will, in theory, bring a number of environmental and economic benefits for them. One of the most important benefits is a proposed improvement to population health. Physical inactivity is implicated in 10% of strokes, 20% coronary heart disease cases, and 10% of (non-smoker) cancer deaths, yet only 3 in 10 people in Wales meet current physical activity guidelines. Active travel may provide an opportunity for people in Wales to include physical activity in their daily routine. This would potentially help to reduce the £1.4 million spent every week by the NHS in Wales treating diseases resulting from obesity.
All the people of Wales have to do to reap the benefits is to access one of these newly created maps and lace up their walking shoes or get on their bike. However, my question is: will they?
What does it mean for the revolution?
The bill focuses almost exclusively on infrastructure – changing the environment in which people travel. However, while improving walking and cycling infrastructure has met with great success in other European countries, this bill does not go as far as the extensive investment in active travel seen elsewhere. In fact the money available for the bill’s implementation is suggested to be around £12.5million.
Additionally, although changes to infrastructure are necessary in increasing active travel, their effectiveness may be limited without simultaneous behaviour change support for individuals. The only individual-level intervention introduced by the bill is to provide people with information (maps) on the existence of active travel routes and facilities. Individuals who have no intention to change their travel behaviours will not seek out this information or use it, and will carry on with their habitual travel mode. Those who do intend to walk or cycle more may access and use the information but may require further support to adopt and maintain these new behaviours, and this is not specifically offered by the bill.
I think that the bill will bring benefits to those who already travel actively and that it may increase walking and cycling rates, but my concern is that it will not bring about population-level change. A walking and cycling revolution is needed to help reduce the public health crisis of physical inactivity. Walking and cycling for short journeys needs to become the norm. I think that the Active Travel Bill is a step in the right direction for active travel, but that it doesn’t go far enough (puns intended).
Image source: Velodenz, Flickr.