While public transport in London has been hit hard as a result of pandemic restrictions, active travel by foot or by bike, has also seen a decline, the London Assembly health committee has been told.
“Overall physical activity is lower,” City Hall walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman (pictured) told the committee yesterday as it began an inquiry into healthy living in the capital. “We are making progress, but if I am completely honest there’s a lot further to go and a lot more to do.”
A report for the committee cited Transport for London research revealing almost half of Londoners saying cycling is “not for people like me” and 24% saying they did not have enough time to walk.
The figures underlined the challenges facing City Hall and TfL in meeting the Mayor’s ambition, set out in his transport and health inequalities strategies, for all Londoners to “do at least the 20 minutes of active travel they need to stay healthy each day” by 2041.
Before Covid the proportion of Londoners meeting the target had increased from 38% in 2017/18 to 42% in 2019/20. But recent figures show those levels falling during the period of pandemic restrictions, to 35% in 2020/21.
The continuing reduction in numbers using public transport was itself a factor, Norman said, because some 50% of walking in the capital formed part of a longer journey including bus or Tube travel, with a public transport trip including on average some eight to 12 minutes of physical activity.
The impact of inactivity on older and disabled Londoners in particular, affecting strength, balance and overall mobility, was highlighted by Alison Gordon from Age UK Enfield, while City Hall public health director Vicky Hobart stressed the health benefits of keeping active. “If physical activity was a drug we would refer to it as a miracle cure,” she said.
Despite the recent funding settlement agreed between the government and TfL, budgets remain tight, Norman said. Before TfL’s spending plans were hit by the pandemic, £230 million had been budgeted for promoting active travel. But the latest deal had seen that total reduced to £149 million.
With £69 million of that total earmarked for the boroughs, which between them control 95% of the capital’s roads, councils had a major role to play, Norman added. “Cabinet lead members probably have more power to address health inequalities than the Secretary of State does.”
Questioned by Conservative Assembly member Emma Best, Norman defended the estimated £200 million cost of the expansion of the capital’s ultra low emission zone to cover the whole of the city, planned for next August. “It’s not an either/or. It’s all part of a holistic approach,” he said.
The often controversial low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) road closures and diversions introduced by councils across the capital had also been successful, Norman added. “I can’t think of an intervention that delivers more significantly for active travel.”
Meanwhile TfL has announced 500 new e-bikes available for hire as part of the Santander cycle scheme, with Mayor Khan saying they would play an important role in “breaking down some of the barriers that prevent Londoners from getting on a bike, whether that be fitness, age or length of journey”.
The continuing pressure on TfL budgets was highlighted with a separate announcement of new “safety critical” 7.5 tonne weight restrictions on the A41 flyover crossing the North Circular Road at Brent Cross from next Tuesday. Negotiations are underway with the Department of Transport to secure up to £50 million for full renewal work, TfL said.
The health committee meeting can be viewed in full here.
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