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Persistent underfunding leaves Government active travel targets “in tatters”

A National Audit Office (NAO) report released today (7 June) has revealed that statutory targets to get more people walking and cycling are “in tatters”, after years of stop-start funding.

The failure to meet Department for Transport objectives will directly impact future generations and their ability to walk, wheel and cycle safely, leaving a legacy of poor air quality and reduced public health, according to campaign groups.

The damning report examined whether the Department of Transport (DfT) is set up to achieve its objectives by 2025 and comes three months after the DfT slashed active travel funding.

The Government’s own target of 46% of urban journeys being walked, wheeled or cycled in the next two years is now impossible to reach, the report finds, despite this being a cornerstone of the Government’s Gear Change vision of 2020.

It also found that despite the targets to increase the numbers of people walking and cycling; and the percentage of children aged five to ten walking to school - all activity levels are now lower than when the objectives were set in 2017.

Campaign groups have also criticised the Government’s persistent underfunding of active travel as “missing an easy win”, suggesting that commitments laid out in the current Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy are now void.

The report authors highlighted a complex web of short-term funding pots across central government, hampering the ability for local authorities to plan and deliver ambitious projects.

Xavier Brice, CEO at walking and cycling charity Sustrans, said:

"It’s clear the Government has backpedalled on its promises, and is missing an easy win on the path to achieving Net Zero commitments, with proven benefits for public health.

“This report reveals that active travel objectives are in tatters, and only serves to highlight that long-term and ring-fenced investment can transform lives, if done well.”

Members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance including the campaign groups The Bikeability Trust, British Cycling, Cycling UK, Living Streets, Sustrans and the Ramblers, welcomed the report, and are today calling for the Government to publish its own evidence for the funding required to achieve its objectives for 2025 and 2030 targets.

Sustrans revealed in its Walking and Cycling Index that active travel contributed £36.5 billion to the UK economy in 2021, from a relatively modest investment from Government compared to other transport modes.

Extrapolating from the Index 2021 figures to the UK population found that people walking, wheeling and cycling took 14.6 million cars off the road, saving 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Research by the charity also showed that by keeping people active through walking, wheeling and cycling 138,000 serious long-term health conditions were prevented and more than 29,000 early deaths avoided in 2021.

Stephen Edwards, Chief Executive, Living Streets said:

“Getting more people walking and wheeling is the best way to reduce congestion, tackle inactivity and clean up our air. Setting targets alone won’t make this happen. Continuous, long-term investment and political will are needed to ensure targets are achieved.

“We know from our work that older and disabled people face difficulties on cracked and uneven pavements and young families are put off walking to school because of a lack of safe walking routes. Fixing these issues and ensuring people reap the benefits of walking more requires the Government putting their money where their mouth is.”

Sarah Mitchell, CEO at Cycling UK said:

“The National Audit Office has confirmed what Cycling UK and others have been saying for years, namely that the government hasn’t committed adequate funds to achieve its own targets to increase walking and cycling. However, we’re pleased the report recognises the formation of Active Travel England as a positive step in the right direction. The government now needs to publish its own evidence on the level of funding needed, and then increase existing funding to enable Active Travel England to deliver the government’s goals.”

Emily Cherry, Chief Executive at The Bikeability Trust said:

“We welcome the National Audit Office report on Active Travel in England and its recognition that the uncertain funding settlement for Bikeability means Government is likely to miss its own pledge to offer cycle training to every child.  Active Travel England has the ambition, but must be backed with long term, sufficient investment is required to deliver safe routes to cycle and cycle training for all.”

About the author

Kathryn Shaw

Head of Communications and Marketing, Living Streets / [email protected]