Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Why there is a real need to improve active travel infrastructure | LocalGov

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Image: richardjohnson / Shutterstock.com.

Peter Mildon, COO, VivaCity looks at active travel infrastructure and the key role data plays in delivering it.

There are many incentives for councils to encourage people to cycle. Increasing the number of cyclists is crucial for creating greener, more sustainable cities. It is often the fastest and most cost-efficient way to travel. And it is a great way to improve people’s wellbeing and fitness.

However, despite these many benefits, the latest Department for Transport (DfT) data shows that cycling traffic levels fell by 2.9% in 2023 compared to 2022. Why is this the case?

From the weather to social trends, many factors can play their part. But one of the foremost and most common reasons influencing cycling uptake is the perception of safety and actual road safety.

There is a need to promote more awareness of safe routes and ways to cycle. More funding is required to invest in active travel schemes/infrastructure – especially in light of the DfT losing over £200m from its active travel budget last year – and to directly improve safety like fixing potholes.

One of the best methods to improve both perceived and actual safety is to implement tailored cycling infrastructure, from introducing segregated cycle lanes to creating cyclist-friendly routes. To do this effectively, transport planners need to know where and how to introduce such changes – and for this, data is key. But how do they get it?

The need for improved active travel infrastructure

The Evening Standard recently covered a story highlighting the experience of cyclist writer Laura Laker on the UK’s 13,000-mile National Cycle Network and how it is largely underfunded. It’s an example of how, for many, the idea of increasing cycling levels cannot take off until adequate improvements are made to infrastructure and the funding is in place to deliver them.

Active Travellers are often also referred to as Vulnerable Road Users (VRUs). Promoting more walking and cycling in the absence of infrastructure improvements to enhance the safety of roads can actually increase the risk of harm on our roads. It is therefore essential to put safety enhancement first when thinking about encouraging more walking and cycling. This approach can create the ‘virtuous cycle’, whereby the roads are safer and also feel safer, helping encourage more people to adopt active modes.

Why and how data is key

Without accurate and timely data, councils are guessing at where infrastructure changes are most needed to support VRUs and facilitate safer active travel. Moreover, reliable and specific data on road safety helps build strong evidence for the need to upgrade infrastructure or to evaluate the success of such interventions.

What could this data be?

DfT data is really useful for assessing trends over the longer term and making retrospective changes. Likewise, data from sources such as Strava, Google Maps and rental bikes can be insightful in identifying popular travel routes and the number of cyclists and can therefore indicate where infrastructure could be needed. These data sources (if data sharing is available) can provide a macro understanding of active travel trends – cycle-friendly lanes can be built and pavements broadened to create safe routes for VRUs.

We also need granular real-time data that can monitor near misses on junctions and roads, allowing transport planners to be proactive and preempt incidents. AI-powered computer vision sensors, for example, can capture the speed, pathway and counts of VRUs and vehicles – including how close they come to interacting – in a specific area, allowing councils to see where interventions are needed.

The more data that can be assessed together, the better local authorities can understand how to improve the safety of active travel infrastructure. Access to quality traffic is key, as authorities can build an evidence base of how schemes are performing and their real impact on the communities, which is the basis of unlocking future and bigger funding.

What role do newer active travel modes play in this?

Currently, a lot of data collection and infrastructure is designed for pedal cyclists and pedestrians. But the rapid rise in newer active travel modes, such as rental e-bikes like Lime and electric cargo bikes (commonly used by delivery drivers), has created a whole range of new interactions. While these modes are great for encouraging more people to use bikes, active travel routes have become more crowded and safety is now a bigger concern between these travel modes.

This is where the need for real-time data that can classify different modes is even more important. If authorities can access technology that can better understand where interactions take place between these modes and optimise traffic flow, then they can implement interventions without having to physically increase road space (which in a city might not be available). This needs to be joined by greater collaboration between rental bike companies and authorities to form a system that can prioritise the safety of all VRUs.

A chance to create change

Bike Week (10-16 June) is a great chance to celebrate the benefits of cycling and get people on their bikes. But it also provides an opportunity to outline why improving the safety of infrastructure is so important in the mission to encourage more active travel. Safety enhancement must be the first consideration in any campaign – if people feel and are safer, then active travel will prosper.

Data is vital in this mission towards building better, safer active travel infrastructure and thereby increasing sustainable travel. But for it to truly work and create tangible change, it needs the funding and strategy to go with it.

To find out more about what local government stakeholders want from the new government, check out our guide, Transforming Local Government: A Strategic Guide for Labour. Download your complimentary copy now!

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