Britain Is Creating a Government Organization Devoted to Biking and Walking

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The U.K. is creating a new government organization geared exclusively at promoting cycling and walking. With a budget of £2 billion ($2.57 billion) over the next five years, Britain will launch Active Travel England to fund to improve cycle and pedestrian infrastructure across the country.

This means new lanes, better protected junctions and more parking spaces for bikes, all funded only if they adhere to a new set of stricter guidelines for quality and design enforced by the department. Making cycling accessible to more people is also a priority. An as-yet-unspecified “national e-bike programme” — probably a set of subsidies for buyers — will be launched to help make cycling more accessible to older and longer-distance users. The government has also just released 50,000 fix-your-bike vouchers worth £50 each to encourage people with a bike rusting away somewhere to get it back on the road.

A promise of £2 billion over five years might seem huge in a country where, in the English section of the U.K., only 2% of all journeys take place by bike. But to put it in context, that figure still comes in at £500 million less than what the U.K. government has already committed to spending on filling potholes alone during the same period, while the government is also going ahead with a £27 billion road-building scheme. The plan still remains a game-changer, establishing higher nationwide standards for bike infrastructure quality and reach. 

“We’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a shift in attitudes for generations to come, and get more people choosing to cycle or walk as part of their daily routine,” U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in a speech on July 28. The national transport ministry will oversee Active Travel England. 

The program is intended not just to create more bike lanes, but to ensure higher quality lanes. The government’s new guidelines will require any bike lane projects applying for funding to segregate cyclists from heavy motor traffic at intersections and on the roads between them. Side street lanes on roads closed to through-traffic will not need this enforced separation, but will only be funded if they create a direct route. Lanes will need to join up into a coherent, seamless network to be approved, and must be able to accommodate different types of bikes at high volumes, on tracks that are free of dismount barriers.

In addition to carving out new bike routes, the plan will also create at least 12 new, nationally located “Mini-Hollands” — car-calmed neighborhoods equipped with especially thorough Dutch-style bike infrastructure that follow a program initiated by the mayor of London. 

Meanwhile, an overhaul of the rules of the road is also in the pipeline. Until October, the government is conducting a public consultation on the Highway Code, Britain’s rulebook for drivers. Key among the changes proposed are rules introducing a “hierarchy of road users” in which the vehicles that can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility in avoiding collisions and harm.

The government’s announcement presents active travel more as a measure to boost public health and reduce obesity than to cut pollution — and as a specific response to the coronavirus crisis.

“This unprecedented pandemic has also shown many of us, myself very much included, that we need to think harder about our health.” writes Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the report’s introduction. “We need to think harder about how we can make lifestyle changes that keep us more active and fit — the way we travel is central to this.” 

The plan also expresses a sense of urgency on health funding. The government’s report announcing the program notes that the indirect cost of physical inactivity to Britain’s National Health Service is £8.2 billion per year. With Britain’s taxpayer-funded health system under intense strain from the country’s high rate of coronavirus cases, the government may be seeking to reduce costs — not least because promises of greatly increased funding to the N.H.S., and resulting better outcomes, were a cornerstone of the campaign for Brexit supported by Johnson. The plan emphasizes preventive measures — such as a recommendation that doctors “prescribe” cycling by giving patients access to affordable bikes, support and training — that could ease funding concerns by ensuring that some health problems are managed before they reach a level requiring hospitalization.

While much of the funding allotted for walking and cycling improvements was earmarked in February, the resilience agenda promoted by the plan suggests a wider shift. It comes out in the same week as another drive focused on health — an anti-obesity strategy launched by the government that, among other things, bans “buy one, get one free” promotions on unhealthy food and requires restaurants to include calorie counts in menus. The government has been sitting on recommendations on clearer food labeling and promotion curbs from Public Health England, the institution monitoring public health in England, since 2015. As recently as last year, Prime Minister Johnson lambasted the idea of sugar taxes. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s recent severe case of Covid-19, in which he has suggested his own weight may have been a factor, helped inspire a change of heart. 

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