A lot has been written in recent years about the death of town centres and the flight of businesses to suburban retail parks. This shift has, in part, been allowed to happen as planning for transport in Scotland has prioritised the car over the concept that towns and cities are places for people to live and work.
Bringing people back into town centres is vital for communities to thrive. This can only happen if the balance between active and motorised travel is readdressed and a considered and thoughtful approach to town-wide design is implemented.
The introduction of the Scottish Government’s Designing Streets policy in 2010 was a major move towards this line of thinking. It emphasised the importance of people and place over vehicle movement and was welcomed by Sustrans Scotland and other active travel and health organisations across Scotland.
At Sustrans we see combining walking and cycling, known as “active travel”, with people-centred urban design as a way of bringing new life into towns, connecting communities and connecting people.
Walking and cycling are widely evidenced to help to lower congestion levels, improve air quality and increase life expectancy. It’s also good for local economies. A study by walking charity Living Streets showed that investing in better streets and spaces for walking could provide a competitive return compared to other transport projects. It also showed that walking and cycling projects could increase retail sales by 30 per cent.
Our projects in Scotland find us working alongside government and place makers, to ensure there is a more equitable balance in the use of our streets.
Our Street Design projects in Dumfries, Lenzie, Kirkintilloch and Balloch see us engaging with residents, schools and businesses to create ways to improve walking and cycling infrastructure.
These projects build on the success of our work in Pathhead, Kirkcaldy, where we worked with Fife Council to change it from an area with difficult road crossings, poor public spaces and fast-moving traffic to a colourful, safe and welcoming environment, with spaces to meet and travel through.
The outcomes of the project record a 7.5 per cent increase in the number of children cycling, 3.6 per cent increase in the number of children scooting and a 6.5 per cent reduction in total traffic volumes. But it is the human stories of improved health, more mobility, quieter streets and improved neighbourhoods that really bring the statistics alive.
However, as successful as Pathhead was, we are still only at the tip of the iceberg as to what needs to be done.
Presenting people with opportunities to leave their car at home is key to promoting walking and cycling and councils across Scotland are at the forefront of delivering this change.
Sufficient and guaranteed funding is a key requirement to plan for the long-term and invest successfully.
While we recognise and applaud that Scottish Government funding is at record levels, the same cannot be said for all local authorities. Spending 10 per cent of transport budgets at local and national levels would bring conditions for walking and cycling in Scotland closer to the standards seen across northern Europe.
Quieter, cleaner and safer streets have the power to breathe life back into our communities. They can bridge the gap between different groups of people and give people physical spaces to connect in, in an increasingly isolated world.
With careful, collaborative design and ownership, towns and cities will be able to mirror their competitors in northern Europe and transform the forgotten link between neighbourhoods, enabling people to live better and healthier together.
John Lauder is national director of Sustrans Scotland.