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11 May 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 6:38pm

The cycling policy that would save the country billions

Investing in active transport offers huge economic returns and improved quality of life for millions, writes Cycling UK’s Sam Jones. 

By Sam Jones

All but unnoticed in the rush of announcements before the dissolution of parliament was the publication of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS), originally proposed in the coalition government’s 2015 Infrastructure Act. Just as we have for roads, England now has a legal commitment by the government to invest in the improvement of cycling and walking provision, and to report to parliament on its progress.

Among cycling campaigners, there was relief to see the CWIS finally realised. As part of David Cameron’s “cycling revolution”, it was one of several manifesto commitments that Theresa May’s new agenda might not have accommodated. But, thanks to years of pressure from cycling and walking groups, and the efforts of the small but dedicated team of civil servants, we now have a positive vision government wants to achieve by 2040: “to make cycling and walking the natural choices for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey.” 

Crucially, we also now have long-term committed funding. This investment should put an end to the stop-start funding models that have plagued cycling planning, and allow local authorities to invest for the future. The CWIS promises up to £1.2bn will be spent on cycling and walking by 2020/21. This figure relies largely upon local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs); the central government commitment is just £316m.

That means we can expect £26 per head invested in cycling and walking over the next four years for everyone in England outside of London – about £5.20 each per year. London’s cycling funding is devolved and determined by TfL, and adds up to £17 per person. With this investment, the CWIS aims to double the number of journeys cycled.

The returns from this investment could be phenomenal. Doubling cycle use from the current level of around two per cent of all journeys would save £46bn by 2050. But the real gains are to be made at higher levels of adoption. Research at the University of Leeds predicts that if cycling grew to of 10 per cent of journeys by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050, the cumulative benefits would be worth £248bn between 2015 and 2050. These levels, as recommended by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, achieve such enormous savings through a variety of means, from decongestion to decreased casualties, but they are mostly found through increased physical fitness.

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Physical inactivity causes around 37,000 premature deaths in the over-40s every year. Following current trends, 60 per cent of men, half of all women and 25 per cent of all children in the UK will be obese by 2050. This will cost the NHS at least £10bn a year. 

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Air quality is arguably as significant a public health crisis as obesity, and cycling is equally important in fighting it. Removing the worst-offending motor vehicles is important, but giving people a cheaper, healthier, faster option to sitting in traffic offers a long-term solution. Building more motorways and trunk roads with a £15bn Roads Investment Strategy is not going address the problem of an inactive nation nor our unclean air.

Doubling cycling funding to at least £10 per head – compared to the £68 per head offered by the Roads Investment Strategy – would put ambitious targets within reach. Hitting these targets would offer real and uncomplicated solutions to some of this country’s most serious problems. The next government must wake up to the huge differences that could be made by investing, not in a new technology, but in one which celebrates its 200th birthday this year – the humble bike.