Government’s active travel plans ‘in tatters’: warning all 2025 targets on walking and cycling will be missed

National Audit Office finds DfT likely to miss all its 2025 ambitions for cycling and walking amid patchy delivery and lack of information

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The government will miss all of its own targets to increase cycling and walking in England by 2025, according to a new report.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said that delivery of active travel schemes had been “patchy” and warned that the Department for Transport (DfT) was unlikely to achieve any of its stated objectives in the next 18 months.  

The DfT said it was “committed to ensuring that more people choose to walk, wheel and cycle” but the report has prompted campaigners to claim that targets are now impossible to reach and the government's plans have been left “in tatters” by stop-start funding.  

What are the goals for active travel?

The DfT aims to double the number of journeys made by cycling from 0.8 billion in 2013 to 1.6 billion in 2025 and wants to increase the proportion of short urban journeys that are walked or cycled from 41% in 2018/19 to 46% in 2025. It also aims to increase the proportion of primary age children who walk to school from 49% in 2014 to 55% by 2025, and have an average of 365 walked “stages” of travel per person a year by 2025.

However, the NAO report says it “is unlikely that DfT’s objectives for increased active travel by 2025 will be achieved” and said the department has little knowledge or influence on whether existing schemes are “of good enough quality”. It also said that there had been “some poor value investments” as the department rushed out active travel schemes during the Covid pandemic.

The report said that while programmes, including the creation of the Active Travel England agency could be a catalyst for more active travel, the DfT should review its targets for 2025 and beyond to make them “stretching but attainable”. 

Gareth Davies, the head of NAO, said: “Active travel schemes have the potential to deliver significant health and environmental benefits. However, DfT knows little about what has been achieved through its past spending and is not on track to achieve most of its objectives.

“DfT has raised its ambitions for active travel and recognised areas where its performance must improve. Establishing Active Travel England is a good step. Active Travel England and DfT must now maintain this early positive momentum, by learning what works and applying it and building partnerships across central and local government.”

In response, a A DfT spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring that more people choose to walk, wheel and cycle across England and that’s why we are investing £3 billion up to 2025, more than any previous government, to help people choose active travel.”

The DfT estimates the government will provide around £6.6 billion for active travel between 2016 and 2025, the NAO said, but in March the Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced a £380 million reduction in active travel budgets up to 2025. 

'A cycle of broken promises'

Critics said the government was “missing an easy win” due to a piecemeal approach to funding that had made it hard for local authorities to plan and deliver large-scale and long-term projects. 

Xavier Brice, CEO at walking and cycling charity Sustrans, said: “It’s clear the government has backpedalled on its promises, and is missing an easy win on the path to achieving Net Zero commitments, with proven benefits for public health. This report reveals that active travel objectives are in tatters, and only serves to highlight that long-term and ring-fenced investment can transform lives, if done well.”

Sarah Mitchell, boss of charity Cycling UK, said the government “hasn’t committed adequate funds to achieve its own targets”. She went on: “The government now needs to publish its own evidence on the level of funding needed, and then increase existing funding to enable Active Travel England to deliver the government’s goals.”

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said the likely missed targets were "just the latest in a literal cycle of broken promises". She added: “Walking and cycling has huge benefits for public health, the environment and the economy, but this government has shown again and again that it cannot deliver on its word.”