£724m in economic benefit on £80m active travel spend, finds study

A new research paper by a trio of leading transport academics has found an economic benefit to the tune of £724 million has been recognised on £80 million in active travel investment.

Authored by University of Westminster Professor of Transport Rachel Aldred, Dr James Woodcock and Dr Anna Goodman, the paper is titled Major investment in active travel in outer London: impacts on travel behaviour, physical activity and health.

Conducted over three years, the 3,000 person strong study found that the provision of infrastructure increased the likelihood of physical activity in the localised area and thus active travel goals were more likely to be met. A particular focus was given to the outer London Mini Holland schemes that seek to provide neighbourhoods where active means of travel is unthreatened by fast and heavy flows of motor traffic. Three follow up waves throughout the study period each had over 1,40 repeat respondents.

The findings illustrated that changes to travel behaviour and adaptation thereafter were most pronounced in “high dose” focal points of the Mini Holland schemes. People living both in high and low dose areas were found to have been more physically active for around five days in the past week and to take fewer sick days as a result of improved fitness. Cross referenced with similar work, the study once again draws the conclusion that living close by to active travel infrastructure ensures a lasting habitual shift and propensity to cycle more, even many years down the line. Living within 2km of a new Mini-Holland was said to result in 35.7 minutes additional active travel after two years.

The researchers found that in many cases respondents were meeting Transport or London’s target of over 140 minutes of active travel per week; in waves one and three it was found Mini Holland residents were more likely to achieve the goal.

It is calculated that the 20-year economic benefit of that activity, factoring health and transport efficiency improvements would tally £724 million, many-fold the £80 million invested. The beneficiaries of these funds were Kingston, Enfield an Waltham Forest. As part of the spend 102 schemes were proposed, 97 of which were infrastructure based, while 5 were supporting measures.

Though walking and cycling are growing on the inner city, the outskirts have not enjoyed the same growth rates without intervention. Citing data from 2005/06 and 2018/19, it was found that cycling rose from 2.2% to 4.4% in inner London, but remained stagnant at 1% in outer London. Outer London’ car modal share is double that of inner London.

The author’s policy recommendation reads:

“These findings provide confidence that even in more car-dependent, suburban areas, active travel infrastructure can spur take-up, and that such growth can provide high health economic benefits in relation to intervention costs. Policy-makers should not however necessarily expect this take-up to immediately appear as increases in cycling; initially, active travel growth may manifest itself as increased local walking. Hence policy-makers should monitor changes in walking levels, which are often left uncounted; and (especially given controversy over cycling interventions) highlight the likely impacts of mini-Holland type interventions on walking.”

The transport academics’ paper is one more on an ever-growing pile of evidence that demonstrates investment in cycling to have great economic merits and a near unbeatable cost-to-benefit ratio. Both Transport for London and the Department of Transport have their own papers illustrating both the localised and nationwide benefits of active travel investment and, even in already high modal share countries, the benefits are shown to grow and grow.