A little over a decade ago my daughter Aggie asked me a question that changed the path of my working life. She asked: “Can we ride to the park?” It wasn’t her question that altered everything, it was my answer – which was: “No.”
We live in a typical northern seaside town, and the park in question was – I know because I measured it later – 549 metres away, a distance that takes a little over one minute to ride. I, an ex-Olympic cyclist, didn’t feel I could keep my daughter safe on our roads for one minute. And that felt very wrong. It wasn’t what I wanted for her, and it wasn’t the place I wanted to live. So I decided to do something about it.
It quickly became clear that advocating for cycling wasn’t hard. I could pick almost any topic in the news and more cycling made it better: health, climate, cost of transport, levelling up – the list goes on. Cycling was an easy cause to love.
It was a terrible irony then, that in 2016, while I was campaigning for safer cycling, my mother, Carol, was killed by a driver while out on a ride. The devastating experience galvanised my desire to ensure that anyone getting around on foot or by bike could be confident of doing so safely.
In 2017 a phone call from the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, gave me the opportunity to do just that and I became his cycling and walking commissioner. He and the region’s leaders had seen that active travel was the logical foundation for a sustainable, healthy transport system – as it is in towns and cities across the world. Over the course of the next four years, we planned a 1,800-mile network for the city region, not for “cyclists” but to enable people, doing everyday things in normal clothes, to do so without cars if they chose.
Mark from Stretford’s story is exactly what this is all about. As it does for millions of people, his day began by bundling his two boys into the back of the car and driving them less than a mile to the school, a stressful round trip at rush hour that could easily take half an hour even without having to find a parking space. Two round trips every day. A total of 190 hours – more than a week – of his and his sons’ lives spent in a car every year.
Then, as part of a local active neighbourhood, his council put in some planters and he realised he could now get to the kids’ school on quiet streets via a local park and avoid the morning melee. Mark now walks to school with his kids, who ride or scoot, every day. The trip takes just 10 minutes and it’s better than stress-free; it’s actually enjoyable with a bit of daily exercise thrown in for good measure.
Seeing what making safe space could do was incredible, so I was delighted when the national government produced its “Gear Change” strategy for England, setting out a clear roadmap to give everyone in the country the same choice as Mark. New national standards to make sure all cycling infrastructure is safe, an inspectorate to ensure councils adhere to the guidelines and training provision so local authorities could start doing this as a matter of course, were all part of the plan.
When the transport secretary asked me to help set up Active Travel England, the new executive agency that will be charged with delivering this vision, it was the most natural choice in the world to accept.
The body is exactly what is needed to give people the option to travel actively, to feel able to leave the car at home more often and help children get to school under their own steam. And to make sure this becomes an embedded part of our transport futures, it will act as a statutory consultee for all major developments, meaning developers will have to make high-quality provision for those who want to walk, wheel or ride.
We will give people the choice to enjoy rather than endure journeys and to kick off their day fresh and invigorated, not frustrated and irritated.
That’s the future Mark has now for himself and his two boys and it’s the one I want to help make for Aggie. I intend to make sure that when she has a family, she’ll be able to say “Yes” when they ask if they can ride to the park.