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Safer streets mean healthier people

Throughout the week, Sustrans policy team has been at an exhibition in Parliament, taking every opportunity to talk to MPs about how the roads could be safer for people to move around in whatever way they choose.

They have been highlighting our Campaign for Safer Streets, which calls for commitments in UK party political manifestos for the 2015 general election for every child to have the right to a safe journey to school.

We know that road safety is one of the biggest barriers to more children cycling and walking. In a recent YouGov survey by Sustrans we found that 47% of parents questioned in the North West rated road safety as their number one fear.

Our fears about road safety have had a profound effect on our own and our children’s health. Only a generation ago most children walked or cycled to school on their own but now most travel in the back of a car.

We think this is contributing to the fact that by 2050 almost 60% of our population are expected to be obese, and most worryingly, some areas of Greater Manchester, such as Tameside and Rochdale, are already higher than this prediction. Meanwhile, traffic congestion and pollution is choking our cities and in 2010 air pollution led to 200 deaths in an average city.

Our dependency on cars is literally killing us. We need to take action. Here in Manchester, Sustrans has been asking MPs to support long term investment by government to support ‘active travel’. Together we could transform walking and cycling paths and create safe routes to schools and centres of work. We’re also asking for a default speed of 20mph in built up areas, and stronger duties and incentives to improve local walking and cycling routes.

As home to the National Cycling Centre and cycling stars such as Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Boardman, it’s only right that Greater Manchester should invest in cycling.

By 2025 the city will invest £20million into developing new cycling infrastructure, including segregated ‘Dutch-style’ cycle routes along the main roads, to help make cycling for everyday journeys more pleasant for everyone. Officials hope that regular journeys by bike will increase from 4% to 10% as a result. The city is also one of seven ‘cycling cities’ which will be regularly monitored for its cycle-friendly facilities.

The city has already made great strides to help change transport habits. Sustrans has worked with Transport for Greater Manchester and other local authorities, to design some of the very best in cycle paths, and create new off-road routes along former railways lines and canal towpaths, which form part of the National Cycle Network. Leafy paths such as the Fallowfield Loop or the Bridgewater Way, are now welcome green spaces in the city frequented by walkers and cyclists, and demonstrate the untapped appetite for this kind of transport in the region.

This is a great start, but it’s a drop in the ocean when we compare it to the billions spent on road building. If we are to become a true cycling city, with all the health, environmental and economic benefits that entails, we will need a lot more investment and a change in mindset so that walking and cycling as a transport choice become a central part of a new urban lifestyle.

As well as building planned new cycle routes along major roads, such as the Oxford Road corridor, part of this journey to a new cycling city means investment in links from existing walking and off-road cycle paths such as the Fallowfield Loop to schools, workplaces and residential areas.

Since it opened last year Bridgewater Way towpath is buzzing with walkers and cyclists enjoying their journeys to the schools which have entrances on to the path. Just imagine how many more people could benefit from this resource if there were more safe routes and signs linking this path to other schools and workplaces as part of a comprehensive network routes throughout the wider city.

We only need to look at cities which have embraced cycling culture, such as Bristol or York, to know that if we build safe walking and cycling routes people will use them. In Bristol this year for the first time statistics showed that more people use a bike or walk than a car for journeys under five miles.

It’s not only cyclists and walkers who benefit from this new kind of society. ‘Cycling cities’ Copenhagen and Amsterdam are heralded as lovely places to live and work. A big part of that is they have wholeheartedly invested in walking and cycling infrastructure.

As a result, the streets of these cities are more relaxed public spaces where people can escape traffic noise and pollution and there are quiet squares and parks that attract families and older people. Desirable places to live also act as an economic driver as they attract businesses who want their staff to enjoy that lifestyle too.

Part of this outdoor life also means making our streets more attractive and safe to use. In Heaton Norris in Stockport, our community street designer Julieta Duran is working with the local community to find out their barriers to walking and cycling. This community is close to the Transpennine Trail, but divided by busy roads, roundabouts and graffitti-laden subways.

Recently the community painted the subway, decorated it with fairylights and held a photo exhibition and party as one of several temporary interventions to demonstrate the potential of this underused and unsafe space. In the longer term we are working with the local council in the area to use community-led designs to reclaim these outdoor spaces as peaceful and creative pockets of land for people to enjoy.

Manchester has a strong tradition as a pioneering city which does things differently. As it prepares itself for devolution, we hope that part of that new vision will be a new urban lifestyle based on walking and cycling. Manchester is an amazing city. Let’s work together to make it an even better place to live and work.