Walking and cycling infrastructure key to Scotland's prosperous future

By John Lauder,
people locking their bikes

Whatever your view on the report of the Sustainable Growth Commission earlier this summer, it has led to debate on what we want a future Scotland to look like. At Sustrans Scotland, our work making it easier for people to walk and cycle means we have a clear view of what Scotland needs.

Sustrans Scotland is a charity. We are non-partisan. We will partner with anyone who wants to make walking and cycling an easier choice for everyone. We do not take a view on independence or the union. However, we care passionately about a successful future for Scotland and think the third sector should engage more in debate on how we create that future.

Promoting walking and cycling

The Growth Commission report considers how Scotland can replicate the success of “small advanced economies, notably those in Northern Europe”. There is undoubtedly a benefit to Scotland in pursuing similar pathways to Northern European nations in promoting walking and cycling for economic growth, health, inclusivity and tackling social injustice.

As an independent nation or not, becoming an active nation is part of the answer to many of Scotland’s challenges. The government has made strong statements in recent months. Transport Scotland committed £80 million to walking and cycling, and the NHS increasingly prioritises the need to make it easy for people to lead active lifestyles. Scotland generates record amounts of clean energy, and is taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and we eagerly await the implementation and development of Scotland’s low emission zones. But there is more to do.

Making people the priority

Like any report on the future of Scotland, the Sustainable Growth Commission has priority areas of development, in this case using the shorthand of productivity, population and participation. As a delivery partner of the Scottish Government and local authorities, we see first-hand how active travel can lead these strategic priorities.

A more productive Scotland with a stronger economy needs to ensure that growth is shared locally through spending and job creation. There is clear evidence that you get more jobs created and sustained per pound building walking and cycling infrastructure than you do for road, rail or aviation.

It is equally important to share growth between rural and urban areas. High-quality rural routes attract walking and cycle tourism, which draws more and more visitors to Scotland’s natural beauty each year.

To grow the population of Scotland sustainably we need to make sure we can move people easily, while reducing congestion. With the highest growth in population forecast in areas around Scotland’s cities we need better public transport, particularly buses, and welcoming urban spaces for walking. Crucially we need better cycling connections on arterial routes into and out of urban centres to move high volumes of people. This will also help to keep this population healthy – physical inactivity costs Scotland’s NHS £94 million every year, and that’s only increasing.

And for more people to participate in a future Scotland, we need inclusive growth that doesn’t insist on owning a car. 3/10 households in Scotland have no access to a car and 1/5 of people in Scotland live in areas at a high risk of transport poverty.

In short, walking and cycling can play a strategic part in meeting Scotland’s aims for productivity, population and participation, whilst adding a fourth ‘P’ to that list: people.

Sharing the benefits of transport investment

This would be an investment strategy for Scotland’s economy and for Scotland’s people. The report demands “infrastructure which will further carry economic benefits that could secure the ‘pay-back’ to investment”. We see the value of walking and cycling and will make the case for it in any future investment.

A new Strategic Transport Projects Review will soon begin preliminary work to compliment a new National Transport Strategy that is in development. This is the Government’s shopping list of potential transport infrastructure projects for the next decade to support Scotland’s growth. Our experience, and that of cost-benefit analysis, is that big-ticket, large-scale, eye-catching projects don’t always offer the best pay-back for Scotland.

There can be greater economic benefit from better community connections to shops, schools and local services – especially when you consider health, air quality, the environment, and wider strategic priorities. Instead of few, select locations around the country profiting, this would help Scotland to spread the benefit of investment and make it more inclusive.

Scotland is increasingly aligning policy and actions with other prosperous Northern European countries, and our infrastructure investment should reflect this. The vision of the Scottish Government’s 2018-19 Programme for Government is to make towns and cities safer and more pleasant for walking and cycling. It’s time to shift our thinking on transport investment, connect our rural communities and transform our villages, towns and cities with this vision. Let’s build the Scotland we want with an international ambition and a local focus.

Find out more about how Sustrans Scotland is delivering infrastructure across Scotland