Smarter travel is the clever way to go


As I write this column overlooking the street in Holloway where I live, an old man who lives opposite is taking his grandchild to school. They hop in to his Fiesta, and I know that in about ten minutes the grandfather, with whom I have exchanged friendly words but not yet names, will be back. Then after a cup of tea, he will pop out again to take his bull terrier for its matinal.

 I know, therefore, that he is fit enough to walk to this school which cannot be more than a few hundred yards away since he is back so quickly. I long to rush out and say, ‘look why don’t you walk to the school as it would be good for the lad [who is around eight] to use up a bit of his excess energy and good for you to get a bit more exercise’ – let alone, of course what it does for the environment, congestion and the planet.

 While obviously I can’t do that as he would be perfectly in his rights to say ‘mind your own business’, that is precisely at the root of schemes using ‘soft measures’ to try to change people’s travel habits. A three year programme in Sutton called Smarter Travel has just come to an end and the results are promising.

 Sutton won a London wide competition to of the boroughs obtain funding for its project to persuade people to travel more sustainably. The core part of the scheme is to send people round to knock on doors to discuss their transport habits and so far two thirds of the 80,000 households in the borough have been contacted.

. Interestingly, Daniel Ratchford, who has been running the project for the past year, says that it was very important not to associate it with the local council: ‘We deliberately created a different branding from the council and the interviewers say they are from Smarter Travel, rather than the council, so as not to give the impression that it is the local authority preaching’.

 He has been pleased that so few people have simply slammed the door in the face of the interviewers since, when asked, most people are interested to improve the way they travel. People are motivated to change their behaviour for various reasons. Some see cycling and walking or using the bus as a way of becoming fitter, others realise that it is cheaper to use the bus while some want to save the planete.

 Cycling has being the big winner with an 88 per cent increase, albeit from a low base. Other measures such as training sessions and the provision of cycle parking have helped, too but this is a remarkable figure especially as other outer London boroughs have not experienced any similar growth (it is central London which has had the big boost in cycling in recent years, and indeed, only there has there been the kind of culture change which leads to a self-sustaining increase).

 For the most part, the results have been less dramatic. There has been a 14 per cent increase in bus patronage and only a 2 per cent reduction in car journeys. Nevertheless, even reversing of constantly increasing car use is a considerable achievement and something to build on. The widespread adoption by local businesses and schools of travel plans, which incorporate continuing measures to encourage sustainable travel, should mean that the figures continue moving in the right direction.

 Indeed, although the project has now ended, work will continue albeit on smaller basis but there is, too, a very interesting permanent legacy. The council’s Smarter Travel team is being incorporated into the team that carries out its traditional transport role which mainly consists of road improvements and traffic calming measures. There has been, as Ratchford admits, something of a culture clash: ‘The highways people tended to be men in their 50s and talk engineering, while the Smarter Travel staff tended to be women in their 20s who spoke marketing’. But already the blending is bearing fruit. A railway bridge which is being replaced will now incorporate a cycle lane and a wider pavement on each side, whereas previously there had only been a narrow walkway.

 Clearly every council in the country ought now to be considering moving in this direction. Even though superficially there is a cost, the reduction in demand for space on the roads and less congestion means that ultimately such schemes pay for themselves, albeit in an indirect way.  Since the scheme is predicated on the idea of choice, there seems to be no ideological barrier to all the parties supporting it though perhaps the Tories might worry that it has too much of a ‘nanny state’ feel for them. Meanwhile, sadly, my neighbour will continue to take his grandson to school in the car.

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