Last Thursday I found myself at the Active Travel Conference held here in Cardiff. According to the blurb the conference would “equip practitioners who are involved in the implementation of the Active Travel Act with best practice tools and knowledge. It will also connect professionals in other sectors who have shared aims or where there are co-benefits, by offering a mix of practical and strong evidence focus.” Sounds good – and as bonus there was lunch and top quality Welshcakes on offer too – so it was too good an opportunity to pass by.
If you’ve been to conferences before – in whatever sector you’re involved in you’ll probably be familiar with the drill – a series of presentations at the beginning and then everyone splits up into smaller groups for workshops to look in a bit more detail at some of the main issues. The conference was organised by Wales Government although proceedings on the day were chaired by Anne Adams-King from Welsh Cycling. I thought this was an excellent thing to see. Welsh Cycling are principally associated with sports cycling in many Welsh cyclists minds, yet here was their CEO at the forefront of the Wales Active Travel conference.
Rebecca Evans AM gave a keynote address. Rebecca is the Deputy Minister for Social Services and Public Health and has “Promotion of walking and cycling, including the Active Travel (Wales) Act” is within her ministerial portfolio. Her address was general, positive and said nice things. She mentioned the importance of infrastructure and active travel’s ability to improve the environment and people’s health. At the end she took some questions from the floor, with one question along the lines of “Is the Government serious enough about this stuff to reallocate road space from cars to walking/cycling?” For me that one question gets right to the heart of this topic, and is crucial to how we want our communities to function. Unfortunately I thought her answer revolving around “local consultations” was somewhat wooly and unconvincing.
The 1st presentation was Prof Paul Kelly who spoke about making an economic case for walking & cycling. Paul is an engaging speaker and he covered a lot of ground – looking at Edinburgh’s 20mph Zone and the World Health Organisation’s HEAT tool (Health Economic Assessment Tool) to look at benefits to populations of increased levels of physical activity, as part of a strategy for building an economic case to increase activity levels. The thing that stood out for me from Prof Kelly’s piece though was the way he contrasted the pleasing, positive way that advertising delivers messages compared with the dry, often negative language of academia – oh and one other thing too….the £650m a year cost that physical inactivity imposes on the economy of Wales.
Next up was a Public Health Wales double act – Huw Brunt and Dr Sarah Jones. Huw is a self-confessed air quality geek with a hint of Justin Trudeau about him; and he expertly took the audience through a chunk of stats relating to atmospheric pollution in Wales. With most of that pollution coming from vehicle exhaust pipes he checked off the consequences of that pollution on the Welsh population. Whilst the earlier presentation from Prof Kelly had focused on the financial side of things, Huw zeroed in on the estimated 300-500 deaths in Wales every year that could attributed to air pollution. Rather soberingly he highlighted that the most deprived parts of Wales were the ones that saw the worst effects of poor air quality. Dr Sarah Jones then spoke about road traffic injuries. Dr Jones was unequivocal about reduction of speed limits being a key part of any strategy to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. She highlighted the absurdity of short sections of 20mph limits in parts of communities and the forest of signs and the difficulty for drivers in trying to work out the limits. Taken as a whole she suggested strongly that Wales should be looking as a whole to shift to a default 20mph within communities, ultimately resulting in significant reductions in traumatic deaths and injuries, as well as cost savings.
Next speaker was Adrian Lord from Phil Jones Associates (the company responsible for much of the stuff in the Active Travel Guidance). Adrian’s piece was for the infrastructure geeks in the audience (always a few) and he looked at how infrastructure best practice had evolved since the original Wales AT guidance had been written, highlighting new practices with some case studies.
Lunch allowed some time for networking. Present at the conference, as you would expect, were many organisations from around Wales that represented people who walk and cycle (with a couple from over the bridges too), as well as from many of the Welsh local authorities; a smattering of engineering companies (eg Capita, Arup) who will have to design and build stuff; NRW and Wales Government. I think it was Kevin from Pedal Power though who pointed out that these people were all “experts”, there was a lack of representation from the people who don’t yet cycle (or walk).
There were a series of workshops after lunch – two involved conducting walking and cycling audits of the nearby Cardiff streets, whilst other workshops looked at the role of Public Services Boards (FGEW), refreshing the AT Design Guidance; and Active Travel in rural communities. I settled for the Design Guidance workshop and the Rural communities workshops. Adrian from PJA led the workshop and we looked at ideas for future updates to the AT Guidance. Standout points for me were comments about highways engineers on being challenged about their designs conflicting with the guidance responding with the line “but its only guidance – and not mandatory”. The workshop wandered off a bit talking about consultations and the difficulty in getting people to engage in the topic. There was some further discussion on a couple of examples, and then time to move on. I threw in a few comments about putting a glossary near the beginning as some of the terms/acronyms are a bit baffling to the general user, and maybe even a “lite” version which could be used by interested lay public (rather than planning/engineering pros) when looking at public consultation planning documents.
The Rural Communities workshop was led by Ryland and Elena from Sustrans. The main part of it was looking at a couple of prospective routes between 2 towns and deciding which was best. Choices were a less direct but more scenic route through a nature reserve, or a more direct route through built up area/main roads. Both groups went for direct route approach (with a little bit of variation as to the exact course). I think this was supposed to highlight a dilemma in route planning as to whether or not to create routes which may appeal to tourists, or to people trying to get about making everyday trips. We also covered a bit on eBikes (the only real mention of eBikes throughout the whole day) and perceived barriers to cycling in rural areas.
As for my impressions of the day as a whole – for a first timer at this sorts of thing it was an interesting event. It was nice to see the great and the good in the same room, and the presentations during the morning, especially from Public Health Wales were excellent. However it was a bit of an echo chamber – when Dr Jones mentioned default 20mph a murmur of unanimous approval went around the room, I would be surprised if there were many other events in Wales where a similar reaction would be encountered, indeed Dr Jones made the same point. A few things stood out for me as being very important, but largely unaddressed –although there were a few hints from time to time. Money – there was plenty of talk about the money saved, but almost no discussion of where the money comes to invest in Active Travel…and that’s in a nation which at the moment can find £1 Billion for a motorway extension. Yet despite high quality cycling schemes delivering a far greater Return on Investment we are scrabbling for crumbs from the table.
Public Health Wales gave massive amounts of evidence as to why a switch to more Active Travel needs to happen, and Prof Kelly showed the significant financial benefits to Wales that would result. Active Travel means more people walking and cycling, but that also means fewer people driving, or driving less often. Now providing better infrastructure that enables people to do the former in a quick, convenient and safe fashion is a big part of delivering this, but as the Dutch have demonstrated it needs to go hand in hand with making travel by private car for short trips in towns and cities less quick and less convenient too. That does mean road space reallocation to more efficient travel methods; modal filtering that means no through roads for cars yet allows people walking and cycling to flow through them unhindered; and ultimately signalling that towns and cities are places for people rather than high volumes of cars. There is mention in the guidance of some schemes, but throughout the day there wasn’t much attention paid to restricting car use.
Ultimately if we are to become an Active Travel nation in Wales we need a bit of stick as well as bit of carrot, and both of those need money and strong political leadership at national and local levels. At the next Active Travel conference it perhaps be an idea to see these topics addressed more.
Did any other Cardiff By Bike readers attend this? If so what were your impressions?