Walking and cycling have for too long been treated as the ‘poor relations’ in the transport family, scorned as marginal and unimportant and last in line for transport funding.
We have some of the lowest levels of cycling and walking in Europe, and the Conservative Party’s manifesto demonstrates that the Tories intend the status quo to continue.
Yet these forms of ‘active travel’ offer solutions that span several of the major crises facing our society.
The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change warned that the world has eleven years for global warming to be kept to a maximum rise of 1.5oC over pre-industrial levels, yet the UK is way off track to meet its own climate change targets and is further still from meeting its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.
We know that this election is the final opportunity to tackle the climate crisis, so we cannot afford for this policy failure to continue. Transport is the UK’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the worst-performing sector when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
Recent research has shown that if we had cycling infrastructure as good as the Netherlands, with a cycling culture to match, that could cut approaching 1/3 from car use right across our towns and cities, bringing a similar reduction to climate damaging emissions and local toxic air pollution.
When rising transport emissions form one of the main threats to the UK meeting its climate targets, and when the development of our children’s lungs is being stunted by toxic air, this is a huge and underappreciated contribution.
On top of these benefits more active travel offers the best way out of the crisis of obesity and diabetes that threatens to overwhelm the NHS and its straining budgets.
Achieving such deep change to levels of walking and cycling is not about more white lines on roads, it’s about fundamentally redesigning and remodelling whole street spaces to give a high quality urban realm that people enjoy being in, designed to put people, not vehicles, first.
Investment in walking and cycling can be seen to be part of the strategic approach to development that towns and cities need in order to upgrade their public spaces, regenerate their built environment and boost their economies.
It is telling that the City of London is adopting ambitious policies to make its streets attractive for people on foot and on bikes. Why are they doing that? Because they want to attract and retain the big city firms, and those firms tell them that having a high quality walking and cycling environment matters to them and their employees.
It is clear that this scale of transformation of our towns and cities will require massive funding. However the spending plans that Labour have just announced for walking and cycling are, for the first time ever in the UK, on a scale that brings that transformative vision within range.
Labour has announced hugely ambitious plans to make England one of the most cycling and walking friendly places in the world.
In England, cycling and walking is not a genuine option for many people. Many of us lack the access to infrastructure to be able to travel on bike or foot safely and confidently.
Yet the Conservatives are offering almost nothing to improve the situation. Indeed, their most notable intervention on active travel in recent years was when then transport secretary Chris Grayling complained that cyclists were a nuisance, before accidentally knocking a cyclist off his bike outside parliament just weeks later.
A transformation in the funding and priority given to cycling and walking is needed – and that’s what Labour will deliver.
The Conservative Party plans to spend almost £30 billion building new motorways and major roads, which we know will increase emissions and worsen congestion, at the expense of maintaining local roads and sustainable transport. Labour will reallocate money to cycling and walking, achieving £50 funding per person in cycling and walking by the end of the parliament.
In developing Labour’s plans, we were guided by international examples of cities in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark who experienced steep declines in cycling until policy changes in the 1970s put them on a trajectory to become the most cycle-friendly places in the world. Labour’s plans will put us on track to achieve the same successes in England.
Labour’s 'Healthy Streets Programme' will make our towns and cities cleaner and greener to transform the environment, travel opportunities and quality of life across the country.
These programmes will be modelled on the best exemplars, like Amsterdam where 67 percent of trips are by foot or bike (compared to just 29 percent in UK cities), encouraging active travel to breathe new life into our towns and cities by reclaiming the urban realm, creating public spaces that are freer from traffic and accompanying pollutants, and fostering environments that are pleasant places in which to live and work.
There must be significant investment in cycling infrastructure to develop dense, continuous networks of cycle paths that are physically separated from traffic, including building cycling and pedestrian bridges and crossings to overcome obstacles.
We will therefore build 5000km of cycle ways, so that cycling is truly for the many, not the brave. That’s not to mention the many social and economic benefits, such as tackling the air pollution crisis and reaping health benefits that could save the NHS up to £9bn per year.
Harmful air pollution that kills 40,000 people each year will be cut. As a priority we will create safe cycling and walking routes to 10,000 primary schools, because we cannot continue to allow children’s lungs to be stunted by exposure to air pollution.
People must also be encouraged and given the confidence to cycle, so there should be training and support for all who need it. To this end we will fund the expansion of Bikeability cycle training, doubling present provision so it covers all primary school children, plus extension to all their parents, extension to give advanced training in secondary schools and extension to offer cycle training to all adults.
Everyone should have the chance to cycle, so we will guarantee universal access to bicycles. Evidence shows that support for e-bikes could be vital for encouraging older people to change their travel habits, so Labour will provide grants for e-bikes to support an e-bike revolution.
We’ll make the most of this industrial opportunity by developing a world-leading electric bike research, development and manufacturing facility, and by supporting the use of e-bikes instead of cars and vans for delivery services in cities.
Labour’s bold plan will, for the first time, give everyone freedom to walk and cycle along convenient, attractive routes, safe from traffic danger, tackling air pollution, saving our NHS billions and boosting our high streets by making towns and city centres more pleasant.
Our plans will transform opportunities so that travelling actively, healthily and sustainably is an option for the many, not just the bold and fearless.
Andy McDonald is Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary.