Can we afford not to base our economy in sustainable transport?

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement sought to tackle the UK's dire economic problems, with the announcement also noting the need for action on social and environmental issues.

However, can a modern budget from a globally-essential financial centre, really afford not to prioritise sustainability within our economy?

Transport is still the most polluting sector in the UK, being responsible for more than a quarter of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of transport emissions coming from cars. There is no doubt we are all in a position wherein every opportunity to help halt the wave of climate change must now be taken.

Funding – investing – in environmentally-focused sustainable transport solutions across the UK, can be of lasting benefit, as we look to support the public in transforming our travel habits.

The first real victory in what must be a global campaign for the planet is helping the people realise they can make a difference with everyday actions, and to create the change they want to see in the world.

Walking, wheeling and cycling are cheaper, healthier, and better for the planet, and have always worked. Here and now, active travel can be realised as something everyone can do.

The cost of living crisis has spiked the paucity of affordable transport options that our car-dominated infrastructure has created. The price of fuel and car maintenance is now beyond the budget of millions, making essential journeys unaffordable. With both private motorised transport over-stretching family finances, and the poor state of infrastructure leaving those not using cars to feel unsafe and unwelcome on the roads and pavements, support for active travel is in increasingly high demand.

Indeed, Sustrans' Walking and Cycling Index (2021) found people on low incomes want greater investment on walking (58%) and cycling (50%), than driving (36%).

So, we must see active travel prioritised to make walking, wheeling and cycling the most convenient means of getting around for the majority of people, which will require several essential steps:

1. Pavement parking is discriminatory against wheelchair and mobility scooter users, other disabled people, those with visual impairments, and more. The UK government's target is for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. Achieving this will be impossible unless we do more to make walking and wheeling more accessible and inclusive - a vital first step is to ban pavement parking.

2. Local Authorities and central Government must guarantee protected cycle lanes on main road routes to schools, to help embed new active travel habits of people across the UK forced to change the way they travel during the cost of living crisis.

3. The proximity of local services and amenities prevents people walking and wheeling more, as only just over half of people say they could easily get to many places they need to visit without having to drive. 79% of people support the creation of 20-minute neighbourhoods where amenities and services, such as shops, green space and GPs are located within a 20-minute return walk or wheel of where they live.

The social benefit of these calls for change are even more crucial in this financial crisis, as desperate families are having to choose between affording essential journeys, heating, or eating, and will increasingly rely on committed and effective investment in the cheapest, healthiest, and least polluting way to travel.

The Sustrans Paths for Everyone - Three Years On (2021) report found that at the height of pandemic in 2020, the National Cycle Network carried 4.9 million users over 764.8 million trips, showing public reliance on walking and cycling infrastructure.

We should also remember that active travel generated £36.5billion for the UK economy last year, due to the direct economic benefits of walking and cycling, as well as others such as reducing the cost of traffic congestion and running a car, improved health and reduced burden on the NHS, and fewer sick days at work.

People who walk to the high street spend up to 40% more than those who drive, whilst physically active people take 27% fewer annual sick days than their colleagues. Cycling and walking infrastructure also unlocks housing developments giving people more choice in how they travel and connecting them to work and education.

That's why it's so important that we keep investing in the networks that make it possible for everyone to make the choice to walk, wheel and cycle for their local journeys.

Ultimately, future generations will look back on the action we take now to embed sustainable travel as the bedrock of how we get around. COP27 has highlighted that we cannot afford for alternatives to car use to be short-term and underfunded if we're to achieve Net-Zero. This is a goal we must all share if we're to have hope of a sustainable future.