Paving the way for active travel

The pandemic has changed daily life in so many ways, and one consequence has been a shift in how people get around, with a sudden boom in cycling and walking. Now, say transport experts Nick Perrin and Joe Seymour, we have an opportunity to build on these changes for a greener and healthier future, but it’s going to take effort and planning.

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It was one of the rare welcome surprises of 2020. Coronavirus restrictions have meant that cycling was up by 45 per cent in some places across the island of Ireland as people adopted more active forms of transport. Bicycle sales in 2020 increased by more than 30 per cent from the previous year new data shows, with the spike most likely related to coronavirus. After decades of automatically heading for the car, bus or train, people had to explore other options. And they leapt at the opportunity.

This shift in behaviour seemed to get a big boost from lockdown but in fact has been gradually evolving for some years. Investment in rural greenways, such as the Waterford Greenway and the Middleton to Youghal Greenway, has paid dividends in drawing jobs and income to local areas. Moreover, the provision of safe alternative travel options is part of an expansion in sustainable alternatives to private car ownership, helping meet climate action objectives. However, integrating active travel networks in densely populated urban areas presents challenges that require continued investment, structural and educational reforms, and a combined approach by many interested parties to fully address.


Increased investment in active transport infrastructure

On investment, there has been a good start: in October 2020, the Republic of Ireland (ROI) designated €360 million for active travel infrastructure to support walking and cycling. This generous allocation is part of a wider shift away from traditional destinations such as complex interurban road schemes; out of the €3.5 billion given to the Department of Transport, €1 billion was allocated to public transport projects.

The €360 million is a significant increase on previous commitments – and will contribute to the development of traffic-free greenways and local link projects which we are developing as part of our work with the dedicated Cycle Design Office (CDO). The CDO was set up in 2019 by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to design and pilot cycle projects throughout the Greater Dublin Area and regional cities that fall outside the remit of the 200km of cycle lines already being built through BusConnects, the landmark redesign of Dublin’s entire bus network. The increase in funding allocation will lead to a significant uptick in capacity and capability that should accelerate delivery, helping ROI meet its Project Ireland 2040 sustainable mobility goals.

In Northern Ireland, the Department for Infrastructure has appointed a dedicated Walking and Cycling Champion with £20 million ringfenced funding for blue/green infrastructure, promoting active travel and shaping places to live. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon stated “In what has been a dark time for us, I want to seize the opportunity to make changes now to underpin a green recovery and improve public health now and for the future”. In doing so Minister Mallon announced the creation of the blue-green infrastructure fund to act as a catalyst for positive change in the way that people live and travel. This resulted in an investment of £2.4 million in greenway projects across four council areas and £3.7 million in a range of interventions, including foot and cycle ways, pop-up cycle lanes, crossings and other cycle/foot infrastructure and social-distancing measures.

Furthermore, in May 2020, the UK government announced a £2 billion package covering every region in the UK targeting cycling and walking, which demonstrates the importance of active travel within UK transport strategies. This funding stream could be targeted at developments like Belfast Streets Ahead, where AECOM has been assisting in the transformation of the physical environment of Belfast city centre. By designating car-free areas and creating multi-modal transportation systems, there is potential for further improvement of active transport options and how they link with public transport networks.

Good planning will be needed to make the best use of the newly available resources, but used wisely, this investment will give opportunities to people across the island, encouraging a new approach to transport.

 

Good planning will be needed to make the best use of the newly available resources, but used wisely, this investment will give opportunities to people across the island, encouraging a new approach to transport.

Focus on behavioural change and communicate the benefits

For these investments to truly have a resilient outcome, the public must continue to be informed about the advantages of active transport, as these projects require support from those who use the networks on a day-to-day basis. In London, for example, there has been a sizeable backlash against newly installed bicycle routes and the introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods, so it is vital to both communicate the logic behind these decisions and involve communities early on to get maximum buy-in. AECOM has been helping developers and authorities produce comprehensive business cases, which help demonstrate the advantages of proposals.

For example, we are currently involved in the Meadows to George Street – Places to People project, the proposed restructuring of the traffic system and streets in central Edinburgh, within the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The scheme includes pedestrianised streets, high quality public realm and placemaking, creating new safe cycle routes and altering the flow of traffic and public transport. It’s a complex scheme that must strike a careful balance of needs for all users and impacts on wider networks, and requires a sensitive design approach which contributes to the historic and cultural value of the area. As such, we are engaging in extensive stakeholder engagement to develop a progressive street and roads design that will help Edinburgh Council achieve its vision to create place and people focused spaces and promote active transport in the heart of the city.

Corporate buy-in is also vital, and employers can support active travel in a variety of ways. In the Docklands area of Dublin, for example, tech companies have installed 1,000 bike spaces as part of the new development. Many companies already recognise the advantages of active travel, with a survey by Transport for London showing that 72 per cent of businesses are planning to encourage employees to walk or cycle to work, or at least part way (68 per cent).

Co-operative and flexible approaches

A wide range of stakeholders will also have to work together to achieve sustainable mobility. AECOM has already developed these crucial relationships with public and private stakeholders, working on a range of projects varying from the €100,000 Cherrywood Greenway in County Dublin, which creates connectivity with existing cycle and pedestrian routes in the local area, to the £200m York Street Interchange in Belfast, which is addressing a major bottleneck on the strategic road network whilst accommodating non-motorised users through the junction. Minister Mallon has also taken the opportunity to pause the procurement of the York Street Interchange project and we have been commissioned to identify enhancements to active travel provision and undertake a place-making study to maximise ambition for what can be delivered for communities, connectivity and the wider Living Places agenda from this important scheme.

All these projects require effective multidisciplinary transportation teams, with technology acting as a crucial enabler. For example, we have been helping planners and developers use the latest technology such as our virtual consultation tool that provides opportunities to capture under-represented viewpoints in the consultation process.

The past months have been challenging for everyone, but a silver lining may be a permanent change to transport across the island. At first, people shifted away from public transport partly from concern over coronavirus infection rates, and partly because capacity was substantially reduced, but they have rapidly discovered the appeal of the alternatives. This shift has coincided with major financial commitments to resilient and active transport from governments in both the north and south. Today, there is an opportunity to develop a range of exciting active travel schemes that will not only transform millions of lives for the better but also help the island of Ireland meet urgent net zero carbon goals.