Gabriel Scally: Crumbs from the table for cycling and walking

These days, I worry occasionally about appearing churlish. I fully understand that when some investment in cycling is announced the expected response is that I should applaud politely and feel deep gratitude for the government’s munificence in recognising that cyclists and pedestrians need some support. My problem is that I have never been happy with crumbs—I’ve always wanted a decent share of the cake.

The announcement by David Cameron that the government is to make £94 million available in England to “make roads safer for those on two wheels” has been widely welcomed. It has been particularly enthusiastically received in the eight cities that are to benefit, as well as by the three National Parks that will receive some funding. There are two major problems with this approach to funding crucial infrastructure. Firstly, it really is an insignificant sum when taken in comparison to the overall roads and transport budget. Secondly, it produces a state of mind that the only way in which we can make progress on active transport in our towns and cities is to wait for central government to make this sort of special announcement.

As part of an overall plan to spend £70 billion (note; billion not million) on transport, at the end of June this year the government committed to the biggest programme of investment in roads since the 1970s. By 2021 they plan to triple the money spent on roads compared to 2013. This included giving £6 billion to local authorities to spend on road repairs. Of course some of this spending relates to infrastructure that will be designed to transport goods rather than people, but the inescapable conclusion is that spending on cycling infrastructure is miserably small in comparison.

Data from the recently published National Travel Survey, published in July 2013, show that the average length of all trips taken in Britain was only seven miles. Furthermore, 22% of these trips were undertaken by walking and 2% by cycling. Although the proportion of walking sounds impressive, it is in fact the lowest level of walking ever recorded and a 27% decrease on the number of walking trips per head undertaken in 1995/97. Amazingly, given the importance of walking, it has been almost completely ignored by politicians. An announcement on 14 of August 2013 by the Department of Health that a paltry (my terminology) £1 million will be spent on “walking initiatives” shows just how distorted the government’s spending programme really is.

If we really want to make a substantial difference to the physical activity profile of our population, and to help combat obesity, we need to concentrate on dramatically increasing the proportion of overall personal journeys that are made by walking or cycling. This will simply not happen, or at least not within our lifetime, unless there is a substantial political commitment that follows through into a restructuring of spending plans. The type of pathetically small investments we are continuing to see will make a difference, but given the scale of the challenge that we face, that difference will be insignificant.

Having spent quite a bit of time over the years cycling in various European countries it is quite clear to me that our piecemeal approach is simply not going to work. Rather we need some clear commitments to transformation in our towns and cities. The health benefits that would result would more than repay the investment. The reduction in air pollution would save thousands of lives; the increased levels of physical activity would reduce our problems with obesity and diabetes; our carbon emissions would be cut; and, our communities would become more interactive and socially cohesive as pedestrians and cyclists replaced high volumes of road traffic. Economically, the number of jobs created per pound spent is higher for cycling and pedestrian infrastructure than it is for road construction and the return on investment markedly higher.

What we need are some imaginative commitments from our politicians that will transform the public realm. At present approximately 38% of primary school children travel to school by car. How about a promise that all children who live within half a mile of their primary school will be able to walk or cycle safely, by themselves, to school. Or perhaps a commitment that in the future 10% of the transport capital budget will be spent on facilities for walking and cycling. The politician that takes the initiative and changes our entire approach to walking and cycling will be revered and remembered. Let’s hope it happens soon.

Gabriel Scally is director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Competing interests: The author has completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at and declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.