Will Norman: Data can bring walking and cycling into the mainstream

London’s deputy mayor for transport and the city’s first walking and cycling commissioner says more must be done to promote active transport.

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Children often have the clearest vision of the future. Attending an event for London schools about the future of transport, I was struck how simple many of their ideas were and how our youngest citizens intuitively grasp the essentials of a liveable city. They weren’t talking flying cars, jet packs or hoverboards. In their vision of the future, they could ride bikes and walk with their friends in a clean and interesting environment. And of course, all buses were fitted with games consoles.

A smart city isn’t simply about technology. Tech and data are the means, not the end, and the fundamentals are simple: enable people to be active every day; ensure our air sustains us; use our space and resources well; and make the city somewhere people choose to live their lives.

When I took the job as Sadiq Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner, I was clear that it was about enabling more people to get around on foot and by bicycle, making it easier, safer and more attractive. There are many reasons for this, but a crucial one is to clean up London’s filthy air.

Every Londoner breathes air with levels of toxic PM2.5 particles above World Health Organization guidelines. It’s a key challenge of our times – shortening lives, harming people’s lungs and worsening chronic illnesses. It’s absolutely vital that the national government adopts this air quality standard, as we have in London.

There are numerous causes, but the prime culprit is road transport, contributing more than half of NOx and particulate matter. No other factor comes close. Some believe this will simply be solved by mass uptake of low emission and electric vehicles. There’s no doubt they have a role to play – and in less than six months, our 24-hour Ultra Low Emission Zone will begin, leading the way in getting the more polluting vehicles off London’s streets.

But rapid change won’t happen without incentives – and sadly, the government appears reluctant to provide them. Electric vehicles are a part of the answer but they are by no means the whole answer. They don’t emit NO2, but they generate particulates from brakes, tyres and road dust. Nor does swapping polluting vehicles for cleaner vehicles solve congestion, or make the allocation of road space and resources any fairer. It doesn’t fix road danger, with recent collision statistics showing more vulnerable road users are sadly killed and seriously injured than people in cars.

London suffers an inactivity crisis with so many people using cars for even the shortest journeys. Looking at some of our streets, I’m not surprised. Kids don’t play outside and many mums and dads can’t imagine a family bike ride, let alone the prospect of cycling to work. The health implications are enormous, particularly for heart disease and cancer, and growing evidence shows that for the first time in human history this generation of children may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

Together these form a web of interrelated problems – traffic, pollution, inactivity, collisions, illness – combining to suppress the potential of our city and its people. It’s clear that we need fewer vehicles, not just different ones. For too long we worked around congestion by speeding up cars, building roads and widening bottlenecks. It doesn’t work and it can’t continue. While our world is increasingly technology-driven, one solution to these problems is remarkably low-tech. Active travel – walking or cycling for all or part of your journey – is the answer.

Sadiq Khan has made this the centrepiece of his transport strategy. His ambitious 2041 target is for 80 per cent of journeys to be active or on public transport. We’re at 63 per cent (of 26.7m daily trips), with a long way to go. It needs strategic planning, tactical interventions, political support and sustained funding to get there.

Cycling in particular shows huge potential. It’s space efficient, non-polluting and allows every day activity. But while it’s the fastest growing transport mode, many are deterred, or excluded, by traffic and safety fears. This exclusion tells a familiar story: women, children, older people and ethnic minorities cycle less, according to a study by TfL earlier this year.

That’s why we’re investing a record £169m annually, mostly into safe infrastructure. Cycling is now mainstream transport, topping 730,000 daily journeys, around a fifth of London Underground. Growth is turbo-charged where we build quality facilities, up to 200 per cent on parts of our cycle network.

Building good infrastructure is critical and is at the heart of our programme. But where to build it? That’s where we need to get smart. Data has changed the game and our pioneering Strategic Cycling Analysis is a ground-breaking tool that helps us plan for the city of the future.

The Cycling Network Model for London (Cynemon) gathers data from multiple sources including the census, on-street counters, bike hire journeys, GLA employment stats and big data cycling apps. This analysis has identified the 25 priority routes to unlock the eight million daily trips (averaging two miles each) that could be made by bicycle.

Technology can not only help us build our network, but can improve how we navigate it. A plethora of developers is competing to help with route planning and navigation. The problem is that current technology tends to use car-based algorithms that don’t really fit cycling. That’s why we’re creating the world’s first cycling infrastructure database, an open dataset that will help unleash the next generation of way-finding, tailored and designed for cycle journeys.

Added to this, technology is maturing to grow cycling even more. E-bikes are now more affordable and remove concerns about fitness, hills and arriving sweaty and dishevelled. E-cargo bikes could revolutionise “last-mile” deliveries. Companies such as DHL and Sainsbury’s are showcasing how they can beat traffic and park at their destination.

Technology can also change perceptions of cycling. I frequently battle the false claim that cycling infrastructure isn’t used. Sensors now track numbers cycling and on flagship routes we’ve installed counters that display the numbers using them. The Embankment counter regularly tops 10,000 a day, showing people cycling is now a normal activity and they can be part of it.

So, data is giving the best ever insight into where we should concentrate our efforts, and technology will help open up cycling to mass participation. But I am with those young people: the really smart thing is recognising what a different and better place our cities will be when more of us can make the switch from four wheels to two.