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Annette Turner, Active Travel Advocate.

Our guest blogger, Active Travel Advocate, Annette Turner, considers the importance of a people-first approach to activate communities.

We need to drive less and walk and ride a bike more.  That message is clear and simple and is one that has been repeated many times by Health Chiefs who know it will help physical and mental health, to climate activists who urge us to achieve carbon neutrality, to the kids standing at school gates waving placards pleading with parents to keep them safe amid the clamour of dropping off time.  The truth is it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that riding a bike or walking more will be good for us, our kids, and the planet they stand to inherit. And it’s even more important with Covid restricting the use of public transport. We all know it’s the right thing to do.

So if we tell people to go ride a bike they’ll do it right? Well no. That’s just the tip of a complex system, wider determinants of a health iceberg.

Thankfully investment in helping people to ride more is gathering momentum and in city regions like Greater Manchester great strides are being taken to advance the cause. Mayor Andy Burnham appointed Chris Boardman MBE, former racing cyclist and Gold Medal Olympian as his Cycling and Walking Commissioner. Together they launched Made to Move, and quite rightly invested in a transformative programme of infrastructure change, with the ambition to become the most cycleable city region in the land. But alongside the £1.6million in investment, the actual million dollar question is, if you build it, will they come?

The problem is that unless a community has a vested interest in the cycling schemes before they even appear on their doorstep, a beautiful cycling greenway can become a forgotten grot spot and magnet for antisocial behaviour over time. When we look at the built environment there are far too many dark, lonely and littered passageways that even Harry Brown would hesitate to use. Like the ghosts of Town Planning Past, some were once part of a hopeful but badly executed attempt to help people move more, some were just lip service paid by developers. Now, many neglected and suffering from the broken window effect, they become the very places people avoid. So where can we see these things done well? A great example is in Westport County Mayo, which took part in a pilot to get it right from the ground up. Following desire lines that link communities to each other, rather than short cuts between roads, this is design for people, not cars. You get what you design for, and this is urban planning for health.

So how might our desire to build Places to Ride be grown ? How might they be designed to thrive along with the communities they serve? Designing them with a people first approach has to be the way. It’s not good enough to simply put people who ride a bike onto the road as an afterthought with ‘barely there’ segregation from hostile traffic. In the words of Brian Deegan, one of the UK’s leading street design engineers, people on a bike are not small cars. They are vulnerable, and need protection and space to exist safely. A simple painted line on a roadside can place someone on their bike into direct danger if it’s not thought out well. Close passes, car dooring and the infamous ‘right hook’ are the very real threats of every journey made on two wheels.

When we think of active travel we must think whole systems, and look at the variety of ways we can activate communities to feel that infrastructure belongs to, and is meant for them. Job number one; access. The most perfectly designed cycleway means nothing to someone who can’t afford a bike.

When the Active Wellbeing Society first started their Big Birmingham Bikes scheme they soon realised that the very communities who were in greatest need in terms of physical activity and the benefits it brings, had little chance of owning a bike, let alone knowing how to ride or maintain one. Community solutions are badly needed, from bike libraries, to pool bike schemes, to bike swaps and leases for kids, to reconditioned bikes with associated restorative programmes. And they have to get into the hands of the people who need them the most. So the question is how many ways are there to do this – whether to own or borrow, and how might we unlock the potential in the systems to seed and support communities to grow that capacity for themselves? The possibilities are many.