How cycling can transform Scotland’s cities – Adrian Davis and Chris Oliver

A cyclist on Princes Street in Edinburgh (Picture: Cate Gillon)
A cyclist on Princes Street in Edinburgh (Picture: Cate Gillon)
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Increased cycling, along with walking and public transport, can have a dramatic effect on city life, cutting air pollution and improving people’s health, write Adrian Davis and Chris Oliver.

With the declaration by Nicola Sturgeon of a “climate emergency”, we outline here why sustainable transport must be understood as critical in any strategy for Scotland to go “further and faster” in tackling climate change.

Under its new target, by 2045, the Scottish Government must achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, the point where the same volume of greenhouse gases is being emitted as is being absorbed through offsetting techniques like forestry. Although Scotland has been innovative in carbon reduction, transport remains an Achilles’ heel. Sustained and strong political leadership in delivering nothing less than transformational change is required.

Drawing on robust international evidence a study out this week for Sport England says that town and city-wide active travel interventions are the most effective at increasing walking, cycling and overall physical activity. Taking a UK example from the study, Peterborough, Darlington and Worcester/Redditch, the ‘Sustainable Travel Towns’ in 2004-9, put in place a range of initiatives aiming to encourage more use of non-car options – in particular, bus use, cycling and walking – and to discourage single-occupancy car use. Cycle trips per head across the three towns increased by 26-30 per cent and walking between 13-18 per cent.

READ MORE: John Lauder: Walking and cycling vital to reach net zero

Between 2008-09 and 2013, both the higher cycling and walking levels were maintained. Key to this success was scale and funding: these programmes were funded at a level that enabled significant changes to be made to the physical environment for walking and cycling supported by behaviour change programmes. This created a synergistic effect of the wide range of interventions. Critically, there was a 7-10 per cent reduction in the number of car driver trips per resident. And all for £10 million shared across the three towns – roughly equivalent to a mile of a new road scheme.

We are about to see more car-free days in our Scottish cities, increased pedestrianisation and businesses being supported to transport goods by cargo bikes. This and much more is needed including low-speed streets with safe routes to school for children. Bus lanes, signal priority, park-and-ride and workplace parking levies in Low Emission Zones, also form part of a synergetic package. So fund what we want to see delivered: although the Active Travel budget was doubled from £40m to 80m in 2017, it needs redoubling in gearing up to achieve the 2045 carbon emission reductions target.

READ MORE: State of our cycling lanes tells different story to SNP rhetoric – Alastair Dalton

The major mode share for sustainable travel across much of continental Europe is not culturally driven. It is because decade in, decade out funding has been at over £10 per head of population.

In urban areas cycling could be a normal, everyday activity by 2040. The latest Sustrans Bike Life report predicts in Edinburgh alone, with adequate funding, that by 2040 just by more cycling, 47,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions would be saved annually, equivalent to the carbon footprint of 10,000 people.

Some 96,000kg of nitrogen oxides and 11,000kg of particulates would be saved annually by removing 226,000 cars from Edinburgh roads every day. Alongside walking and public transport, cycling has the potential to shape and improve how people move around our cities in the future. Such a transformation will improve the health of whole populations, including through reducing transport-driven inequalities, improving liveability of neighbourhood streets, and the civic, cultural and economic vibrancy of Scotland’s urban life. Transformational change is the only game in town.

Adrian Davis is professor of transport and health at the Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University and Professor Chris Oliver is known as the CyclingSurgeon