In March this year, the UK government announced their decision to cut funding for projects aimed to promote active travel in England from £308m to £100m over the next two years up to April 2025, a decrease of 68%. According to climate campaign group Transport Action Network, this constitutes just £1.07 per capita per year, far below that of Wales (£17.40) and Scotland (£34.30). Over the past 20 years, there has been a general uptake in active travel in England, with an average of 55 miles cycled per person in 2021 compared with 39 miles in 2002. This reduction in funding, earmarked to have been spent on infrastructure deemed vital to improving safety and people’s perceptions of it, risks reversing this uptake. This has many negative consequences, both to individuals and to society as a whole, and risks the government’s pledge for 50% of trips in England’s towns and cities to be walked, wheeled or cycled by 2030.

One of the most well-known benefits of active travel is its positive impact on people’s physical health. The NHS reports that walking or cycling regularly can reduce the risk of a range of illnesses, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and strokes. This aligns with findings in academic literature. A 2014 study analysed the results of several previous studies that examined the impact that cycling and walking have on health. It found that cycling 150 minutes per week (the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation) was associated with a 10% reduced risk of death, while walking was associated with an 11% reduced risk of death. The positive health benefits to individuals also have positive financial benefits to the NHS – with fewer people getting ill, the burden on NHS finances is reduced. Some estimates have found that the NHS could save around £22 billion1 within 20 years due to reductions in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, dementia, ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and cancer because of increased physical activity.

As well as improving individuals’ physical health, active travel is associated with improvements in mental health. A recent study concluded that 2.5 hours of brisk walking per week was associated with a 25% lower risk of depression compared with doing little physical activity. At Simetrica-Jacobs, we have added to this evidence base by examining the impact that using active modes of transport has on individuals’ life satisfaction for the UK Social Value Bank. This allows us to put a monetary value on the impact by using 'Wellbeing Valuation', a methodology recommended by bodies such as HM Treasury and the OECD. By using data from Understanding Society, a large-sample survey that is representative of the UK population, we found that individuals who frequently walk or cycle short distances have a significantly larger life satisfaction than those who don’t.

Active travel also has a large environmental benefit. One study found that an average person cycling one trip per day more and driving one trip per day less for 200 days a year would reduce their annual CO2 emissions by around 0.5 tonnes. Even if only 10% of the adult population of the UK were to do this, it would prevent around 2.7 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted each year. This is a substantial reduction, representing around 1% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions in 2022. Environmental benefits are also seen in the manufacturing process. According to the World Health Organisation, the average car requires 4.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent to be made, far above the 0.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalent for bicycles. The environmental benefits from active travel are clearly huge and can go a long way to help achieve the government’s target of becoming net zero by 2050. Yet such a sizable reduction in funding sends mixed messages about our ambitions – we all have to do our bit to contribute to reductions in carbon emissions, but funding for infrastructure is required to support a change in behaviour. Our earlier blog, Climate Anxiety: how to use it to our own advantage, outlines tips and incentives on how we can all do our bit.  

So, the case for investment in active travel is clear – as well as the well-known physical and environmental benefits of walking and cycling, there are also vast wellbeing impacts that are waiting to be tapped into. Simetrica-Jacobs incorporated these benefits into its quality-of-life analysis of Edinburgh’s city centre transformation (ECCT), where it estimated that improvements to walking and cycling would generate £25m of value from 2023-2045. This innovative analysis contributed to the ECCT winning the award for Best Plan at the Royal Town Planning Institute's Planning Excellence Awards in 2022. Which leaves us with a question: why is funding for active travel being cut by 68%? We believe the answer lies with the fact that most of the benefits of active travel are intangible and hard to quantify. This means they are at risk of being left out of project-appraisal calculations such as cost-benefit analyses, meaning policymakers make decisions based on incomplete information. Our aim at Simetrica-Jacobs is to provide a solution to this by monetising the non-financial impacts, giving a more holistic picture of the benefits that initiatives create and allowing for a more accurate assessment of value for money.

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[1] This is the £17 billion figure given in the paper uprated to 2022 prices.

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