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The JRtB guide to... Active Travel England (ATE)

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It's a new government agency all about transport. What is it supposed to do? And can it succeed? Let's hope so, for everyone's sake

Active Travel England (ATE) is the latest government agency with a specific transport mode remit. They are here to make cycling, walking and what they call ‘wheeling’ better, more common, more regular and easier to access for everyone. They are here to see that any transport scheme - from road to rail to city centre to rural - is prioritising active travel. 


Officially, ATE is “the government’s executive agency responsible for making walking, wheeling and cycling the preferred choice for everyone to get around in England. ATE is an executive agency, sponsored by the Department for Transport.


They seem to have two functions. The first, and most headline friendly, is administering various pots of money, to which local authorities can apply, to support different kinds of active travel programmes. For example, £32.9 million (curious amount - ed.) for developing a network of active travel experts. They also now administer the Active Travel Fund (so it’s not £200 million of new money, as they would like you to believe, it’s the same annual active travel fund, but run by ATE instead of DFT). This is generally for infrastructure works to which all England Local Authorities can apply. 


Chris Boardman MBE is the permanent National Active Travel Commissioner, a step up from his similar role at Greater Manchester. It is not entirely clear what he will commission, as the Local Authorities will be doing the commissioning. 


Arguably the more interesting part of their role will be reviewing and commenting on other kinds of transport schemes. They will be statutory consultees on all new builds for roads, rail and other schemes. This means that no longer will road schemes be able to gain phenomenal amounts of funding (e.g. the A417 in Gloucestershire will cost tax payers £550 million for 3.7km of roadway), without substantial provision for active travel. 


We are hopeful they deliver on this and active travel is taken seriously in this regard. Some motorway junction scheme promoters are already saying they are not there to solve active travel issues, or make active travel better. Not only do we disagree, but more importantly, we think ATE will disagree with this. It has been interesting to listen to transport planners from the big consultancies get very riled up about this. ‘We are here to build roads’. ‘We are not interested in making this scheme better for cyclists or pedestrians’. ‘It’s very worthy, but it won’t work’. ‘traffic lights are already a massive problem; without them car drivers would be able to get through this junction without traffic backing up’. ‘Why are people wanting to walk here? It’s dangerous to walk with all the cars’. And so on; you get the idea. The point of ATE, we believe, is to review these schemes. They will have some powers to stop transport schemes that do not proactively support active travel measures. Such as ensuring road schemes also deliver segregated cycleways. However, it is inevitable that some schemes will still get pushed through, for a variety of reasons. 


What those Local authorities that do push need to realise is that there will now be a corporate memory of their actions. This memory will be able to recall that a transport scheme was designated without an active travel component. That it was built in this or that area. The councillors who pushed and made it happen did so at the explicit expense of cycling and/or walking, and so by extension at the cost of meeting decarbonisation targets, the cost of improved public health and wellbeing and so on. 


Maybe those councilors are OK with this. But this corporate memory will have real-world implications. Specifically that the likelihood of getting future transport scheme funding is dramatically reduced. We don’t believe this means you might miss out on a few quid, but that’s fine because you got a short section of road. We believe this could affect any transport scheme, for any mode, for a long time into the future. 


If you are a local councillor, and you do not like active travel, you would be well advised to step away from transport altogether. There is plenty of need in adult social care, maybe try that. Your actions now, could lock your authority into an extremely thin future when it comes to any kind of transport scheme, of whatever kind. It will not be enough to say, we built a road with no active travel provision, now we want some bus infrastructure, because the answer will be no. 


It remains to be seen how the evidence stacks up for the delivery of powers from ATE to affect what it has claimed it will affect. Perhaps we have over-stated its importance. Nevertheless, it is there to deliver against national decarbonisation targets, and that will not happen with more road building. 

Contact Andrew Brown on 07795 547069


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