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The Research Brief: the economic benefits of investing in “active travel”

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, think tank, charity and NGO world. See more editions of the Research Brief here.

What are we talking about this week? We’re adding another episode to the long running “cars vs pedestrians and cyclists” saga. Specifically, “Stride and ride: England’s path from laggard to leader in walking, wheeling, and cycling“, a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank. It looks at how “historic underfunding” of walking and cycling infrastructure, compared to schemes dedicated to drivers, has led to worsening air quality and deteriorating health, and has stifled economic growth.

What’s the gist? The government is putting too much fuel in the tank (read: money) of road- and car-friendly schemes, which is in turn stifling the uptake of cheaper, healthier and more environmentally friendly “active travel”. Fewer than one in five people walk, cycle or “wheel” (a more inclusive term used to encapsulate all forms from “walking”, from using a non-motorised wheelchairs to skateboards) on an average day compared to those in Europe, where more than a quarter of people do so.

From repeated freezes on fuel duty in fiscal interventions, to the Prime Minister’s “plan for drivers” announcement last year, all roads lead to the government deprioritising active travel. Between 2016-21, an average of £148 per person, per year was spent on road projects, which is more than ten times the amount spent on facilitating active travel, the researchers note. 

And last March, the government, through the Department for Transport, announced a £233m cut in dedicated active travel funding. “UK government policy has locked in car dependency, making people walk-wary and cycle-cautious, at the expense of our health, our environment and our economy,” said Maya Singer Hobbs, a senior research fellow at IPPR and one of the report’s authors. “Investment in active travel infrastructure to get more people walking and wheeling is crucial to cutting emissions and improving growth.” 

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[Read more: Rosamund Kissi-Debrah: “Without Ulez expansion, more children are going to die”]

But how does walking lead to economic growth? The researchers claim that there is a higher return on investment from spending money on active travel infrastructure (£1 returning an average of £5.62) than cash spent on roads (£1 returning £2.50). 

Active travel investment could also save money, researchers believe. Converting current short journeys conducted by car to active travel would save the NHS £17bn over 20 years, they say. Doubling cycling and increasing walking would save £567m per year through improved air quality, and prevent 8,300 premature deaths. 

What’s being called for? The think tank wants to see spending reform, with money more evenly distributed across the country. Between 2016 and 2021, researchers uncovered a glaring investment gap in active travel equivalent to £2.3bn between London and the rest of England – quelle surprise.

The researchers are calling for a new decade-long funding arrangement, which involves the government investing £35 per person, per year on active travel infrastructure, including at least 25,000 miles of protected cycle paths. They also want an additional £15 per head, per year, to deliver other interventions that would encourage more people to walk, wheel or cycle. This includes public health messaging, cycling training, a subsidy scheme for rental bikes, cycle storage and better integration of active travel infrastructure with public transport. “Diverting just a small percentage of the billions invested by the government in car travel could make our streets safer for everyone travelling under their own steam,” said Stephen Frost, another of the report’s authors. 

He added: “Children could move around more freely, we’d all have better access to green space and nature, people would be healthier and less isolated, and local high streets could be thriving.” Doesn’t that sound nice?

In a sentence? Government transport investment can’t continue being so vehicle focused – spending on active travel would yield economic, health and environmental benefits. 

Read the full report from IPPR here.

If you have a report, briefing paper or a piece of research that you’d like featured in the Research Brief, get in touch at spotlight@newstatesman.co.uk.

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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