Now is the time to make smarter choices on travel for a healthier future, argues Ric Bravery, of sustainable transport association ACT TravelWise.
As vehicle ownership and usage continue to grow, it is easy for the able-bodied and most affluent of us to ignore the alternatives of jumping in the car – even in the days of high petrol prices and a looming recession.
But while the car has brought many benefits, its influences are not all positive.
We know about the ticking time-bomb of obesity and growing ill-health due to our inactive lifestyles – so much of it linked to grabbing the car keys to pop out on even the shortest journey.
We have a generation of adults setting obesity records not only in the UK, but in Europe. Last year, an EU survey revealed that 23 per cent of UK women are obese – the fattest in Europe, while 22 per cent of men are obese – the second largest. Perhaps most worryingly, 25 per cent of five-year-old children are now considered to be overweight.
Part of this is because our children are cocooned in cotton wool, confined to playing computer games at home rather than being allowed to play in the streets as my generation did as children. But how often do parents walk somewhere with their children instead of putting them in the back of the car for travel?
We often hear about the decline of communities – how we no longer know our neighbours nor have local shops in which to meet them.
Again, a lot of this is due to travel habits. More often than not, people use the car, even if the shops are a minute away. There’s a reluctance to go anywhere on foot and the impacts of that are telling.
There are practical problems too. We all know of the frustrations of rush-hour traffic, with rows of people sitting alone in their tin boxes – each vehicle taking up more space than if they were all sitting on a bus. There are the health problems caused by vehicle exhaust fumes, the stress caused by traffic noise and the contribution of transport emissions to climate change, to name but a few.
So should we give up in doom and gloom? No. This is where ACT TravelWise comes in – a group not interested in wearing hair shirts or abandoning the car altogether, but about making smarter choices.
We want people to think about walking to the local shops, cycling to the library or catching the bus into town, instead of automatically driving.
We want workers to share a lift to work one day a week or to an office meeting. If you don’t need to drive to work, join a car club where you can hire a car by the hour in your neighbourhood – or even agreeing with bosses to work from home on that day when you have a deadline to hit and cannot get it done with the distractions of the office.
Government research suggests that smarter choices could cut urban traffic by about 20 per cent in the peak period and about 13 per cent off-peak. The benefits to health go even further.
So the discussions at a recent two-day conference at the ICC in Birmingham were of great relevance to all of us in the West Midlands – not only those interested in the environmental aspect, but in health and economic problems too.
Perhaps the most important to me was listening to the political viewpoints.
All major political parties were represented, with Shadow Transport Minister Theresa Villiers MP (Con), Lord Bradshaw (Lib Dem) and Alan Francis (Green) taking part in a ‘Question Time’ debate and Paul Clark MP (Lab), pictured above, who was recently appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for transport, delivering the keynote speech.
All four expressed encouraging views on how we can move forward. But I can’t help feeling frustrated. The reason? The government has failed to deliver on the promises it made 10 years ago.
The white paper – ‘a new deal for transport’ – presented a vision of a balanced transport network. But since that high-water mark, expectation has not been matched. The agenda has not been handled as seriously as it required and, although dedicated transport professionals have worked hard to promote other options in every British region, we are nowhere near achieving the overall behavioural shift we need.
If we look to other European countries – Holland, Denmark, Germany – we will see places where cycling in particular is a regular part of both commuting and leisure. The major cities in these countries have also invested heavily in practical integrated transport plans and public cycling schemes.
They ensure that the process of using public transport – from buying a ticket to ending a journey – is simple and accessible. The results invariably produce cleaner and greener cities.
Of course, Europeans still own cars, still drive them and still get stuck in rush-hour traffic. But the difference is balance – and that is what we lack throughout Britain. Our attitudes are partly to blame – sometimes I think we view Europeans as a different species because of their transport habits! But, ultimately, it is simply a matter of culture and we can adapt in this country if there is a collective will to do so.
Despite the hope brought by ‘a new deal for transport’, the investment and commitment to provide other options have been lacking. Our decision makers are still those who predominantly see the world through a car windscreen and, while change is happening, it is not fast enough. That is why I welcome the support of the respective MPs but wish to see concrete action.
The most disappointing element is that I know what we could achieve with the full commitment and resources promised by the white paper and demonstrated in other areas of government policy.
In the West Midlands region alone we have seen first-class progress since 2001. More than 70 per cent of schools in the West Midlands have installed travel plans, while 30 per cent of employees in the region work for companies with initiatives to promote sustainable transport – a target which was not expected to be met before 2010.
While those numbers are encouraging, more is needed to promote and develop public transport, including bus, train and rail. Walking and cycling also need to be taken more seriously by the public and those in power.
Now is the time for real commitment to sustainable travel. If we succeed, we will find ourselves on a path with multiple rewards. We will have healthier, happier and greener communities – I just hope that we do not find ourselves still calling for action by the time we reach 2018.
* Ric Bravery is a senior transportation officer at Wolverhampton City Council and is the West Midlands chairman for ACT TravelWise, an association which works with organisations to promote sustainable travel and to help to develop and deliver travel plans for businesses and schools.