Active travel means making journeys by physically active means, like walking or cycling. These are usually short journeys, like walking to the shops, walking the kids to school, cycling to work, or cycling to the station to catch a commuter train. Kent County Council has written an Active Travel Strategy to get more people in Kent doing this, and for the next few weeks members of the public can say what they think about it.
Active travel has quite a few benefits. It’s good for health as it’s a way of being active within your normal daily routine, and Kent has a rapidly growing problem with the health issues caused by people not being active enough. It can also be quicker than taking the car, reduce congestion, lower air pollution, and save money on fuel, running costs and parking compared to driving.
There are two main problems with active travel though; the first that some people who want to walk or cycle for short journeys find it hard, and the second that some people have no interest in anything other than driving.
Finding a way
The first problem is arguably the harder one to address because it could involve changes to the road network, town layouts, car drivers’ behaviour, facilities in public and private buildings, and possibly the law. People need to find a way to travel actively, with roads and facilities that often don’t help.
I cycle to work when I can. I live 3 miles outside Maidstone town centre, where I work. There’s a national cycle route through Mote Park pretty much from my house to the town centre.
But I can only go in summer on days when it’s not raining and dry on the ground, as I go in my work clothes because there’s no showers or changing rooms in our building even though a couple of thousand people work there. The route through the park also means it has to be daylight in the morning and evenings as well, so I can only go between March and September. Going on the road is too risky, it’s a single-carriageway main artery road into the town centre with a wall at the side and no cycle lanes, not even room to cycle up the inside on the left of the traffic. Morning commuters aren’t that patient with cyclists, so even if I got there without being knocked off I’d still have spent 20mins sitting in with the cars and buses breathing diesel fumes. Once I’m out of the park I break the law, as I need to cycle on the pavement to avoid a detour round the one-way system that would be longer than the journey itself, then a final stretch through a pedestrianised section of town where I’ve been stopped more than once by both police and community support officers, even though the restrictions in a pedestrianised zone only apply to private motor vehicles. They didn’t seem to know that. I also can’t cycle on days when I have to carry anything bulky with me, or when I need to go to meetings with work in other parts of the county, or when I need to go somewhere straight after work.
So all in all, I don’t cycle to work that much even though I’d like to. In summer, maybe 2-3 days a week on a good week. In winter, never.
This is just me going to work. Other people don’t walk their kids to school because they have to cross busy roads or walk down streets with no pavement, need to go somewhere else straight afterwards, or have to carry musical instruments or sports kit. It’s against the law to cycle on the pavement, meaning a 14-year old who wants to cycle to high school is unlikely to as it’s considered dangerous on the road and it’s illegal on the pavement. Only a lucky few have a cycle lane from door to door.
Kent isn’t perfect for active travel, but in reality it’s never likely to be. There is significant room for improvement in active travel infrastructure like cycle lanes, pedestrian crossings and signage but people who want to do it will find a way, even if that means fitting it around other things.
The bigger issue is that most people will use their cars all the time, for everything. Some people drive to the gym a mile away, park at the door, walk on a treadmill for an hour, then drive home again – because it’s more convenient.
Everyone can come up with reasons not to walk or cycle to the shops, to work, or to the station to get the train for the commute to London. The main reason is that using the car is more comfortable, and more convenient.
But it’s going to get less convenient.
The road network in Kent, especially in and around the towns, was mostly built when there were fewer cars, and all those cars were a lot smaller. The number of cars on the road has increased every year since 1950, so there are now more cars on the road network than it was designed for. This means more traffic, more congestion at peak times, more gridlock hotspots, and pollution.
The amount of pollution from road transport has actually gone down since 1990, but it’s nothing to do with the number of cars. A drive for efficiency in car manufacturers has meant that engines need less fuel for the same journey, and the fuel itself has become cleaner since sulphur was taken out. That said, over one in 20 early deaths in the UK is due to exposure to small particles polluting the air, and a large part of that pollution comes from road transport.
Getting more people walking and cycling will help to tackle all of this, but it will need a committed effort from a whole range of people, groups and organisations to get people out of cars and into the habit of walking or cycling for short journeys.
Act Now – Make your voice heard!
The important thing is that people in Kent shape this active travel strategy. By responding to the consultation you can decide which of these things is more important, influence what goes into the final strategy and help to shape the future of walking and cycling in Kent.
The Active Travel strategy consultation in Kent is open for your opinion until 13th July 2016. Your opinions will be presented to the cabinet in November for discussion. This is your chance to make your voice heard on the future of travel in Kent!