Local Living: With Dr. Rachel Aldred

10 min read.
Dr. Rachel Aldred is a Professor of Transport at the University of Westminster and the Director of the Active Travel Academy. Rachel has ten years’ experience of researching active travel, and has made contributions to the field in areas including conceptualising and calculating active travel potential, developing methods for evaluation research, near miss studies, applying epidemiological methods to active travel injury risk, and exploring cultures of active travel, including processes of stigmatisation and marginalisation.

What are some of your current research and policy interests and those of the Active Travel Academy ?

We set up the Active Travel Academy in Autumn of 2019 and really got going in 2020. Obviously, when COVID-19 hit, everything became a little different from what we imagined, but we have adapted virtually, with a lot of ongoing research projects and new staff, PhD and Masters students. Based in the University of Westminster, we’re a research and knowledge exchange centre focusing on walking and cycling mainly but also with some interest in running, jogging, micro-mobility such as e-scooters as well as car use reduction more broadly. 

One of our main current research interests lies in the emergency COVID responses related to transport and place interventions. There has been a range of strategies implemented, and in London more particularly, low traffic neighbourhoods that are quite compelling. This is an urban planning principle that is quite common in the Netherlands, seeking to unbundle and separate motor routes with bike routes and pedestrian routes. They also come as a response to the rise of Satellite Navigation that has increased motor traffic in a lot of residential streets. It has turned what were often quiet and pleasant residential streets where children could play in front of their house and where people could walk and cycle into quite scary thoroughfares.

Over the last 10 years, the amount of motor traffic on main roads in London has stayed constant but the amount on minor roads went up 73%. Low traffic neighbourhoods can help reduce that amount of traffic on residential streets and help with social distancing. London has relatively good footways, but we still have a lot of narrow sidewalks. Giving people the ability to walk or jog in the carriageway can enable more space for people to move actively and safely. Part of what the Active Travel Academy has been doing is trying to look at the impacts of some of these changes. We are looking at earlier implemented low traffic neighbourhoods that were implemented in a borough of London called Waltham Forest. Using administrative data, we found that car ownership has decreased by 7% in a couple of years. Given the targets that are in place and the difficulty of curbing car ownership, this is rather promising. The new ones have only been implemented for a few months so we don’t yet have the data to fully begin our analysis.

Cities around the world are facing multiple layers of crises: from physical and mental health to economic precarity. How do you see active transportation as a tool for healing and reactivation in UK Cities?

Walking and cycling can really help a lot. There are however different ways it can play out, depending on the policies in place. For instance, we could have pedestrianisation plans that merely pedestrianise historic city centres, only benefiting tourists and the people who can afford to live there, or we could have a more thorough attempt to make pedestrian friendly environments in suburban or deprived areas and improve things there as well. What I thought was interesting in these low traffic neighbourhoods is that they are an attempt at improving areas where people live rather than in London’s city centre. 

The 15 minute city could be a very exciting concept as long as it means that people have liveable, healthy, safe neighbourhoods with the right amenities and activities. It shouldn’t just be that there’s a coffeeshop but also that there are parks, playgrounds, safe streets, and parklets for example. If it does look like that, then it could be quite radical. There’s also a whole range of other issues such as affordability that need to be taken into account. We have a long lasting problem of people being priced out of cities like London so we also need to think about affordable housing and other interrelated urban issues. Enabling social interaction and connectedness is also a really important challenge that can be enabled by more human scale travelling, where people are walking or cycling and not travelling so fast, separated from each other by metal and glass.

A large amount of cycling infrastructure has been rapidly rolled out in cities around the world this year, but different demographics have specific needs. For example, families need wider bike lanes, people with disabilities need infrastructure to be accessible, or women are more prone to bike with better lit, protected lanes. Can speed create longer lasting problems inclusivity?

I would also add to the examples you gave the question of where we are building things. This has been particularly challenging in the cities in the UK. In London for example, the first wave of cycle superhighways, now called cycleways, had the aim of connecting workplaces with radial routes. Of course, these main roads need cycle lanes, but solely building these connections to the city centre as if people only did an A to B commute isn’t enough. Other destinations weren’t thought through properly. Commuting is only about 1/5th of trips. The elderly or children don’t do this type of commuting and women commute less than men in this way. 

We are also currently implementing a lot of School Streets in the UK, particularly in London but Scotland has done quite a lot too. This is an intervention where we close down school roads to motor traffic during open and closing times. That’s quite good particularly for primary schools as their catchment area is usually small and people are often walking relatively small distances. It can be quite transformative. If you think about secondary schools however, many of those children and young people are going a bit further and having just one road closed isn’t enough. What they really need are connected networks.

Lucy Marstrand, a former student and transport planner, has been doing some really interesting work showing that we aren’t thinking enough about children and women, because we are not thinking about their specific commutes and needs. Streets that might seem safe for an adult aren’t for children, and until we tailor to those needs people won’t let their children cycle independently. Thinking about spatial planning is really important in this regard.

The Active Travel Academy currently has a call for funded projects: Justice in and for active travel. What are some key equity issues you are concerned about and think need to be paid closer attention to? 

Active travel can really help with a whole load of problems: policy problems, social problems, social inequalities, but it won’t just happen. Between 2001-2011, in places in the UK where cycling increased, it didn’t get more diverse. I think that you need to actively think about equity in planning, or planners will have inevitable biases. When planning for cycling, people still think of a male, able-bodied demographic as the principle user. A few months ago we finally replaced our old cycling infrastructure design guidance in the UK. The old one’s cover showed a guy about early 30s in lycra, helmet, fully kitted out with a lorry overtaking him. Is this really what we are planning for?

Having that different mindset requires actively thinking about equity as well as diversifying the planning and transportation profession. I remember hearing from some planners at Transport For London about a cycle route that was being planned some years back. Stakeholders were cycling through an estate with a little park and thought this would be a perfect route. Two women planners however said that they would never cycle here after dark. Simply having someone who can see things differently is so important. Wheels for Wellbeing, led by Isabelle Clement, is another example of an organisation giving planners a new perspective on inclusivity, as it is traditionally assumed that disabled people don’t cycle.

Making sure that our assumptions and levels of privilege are made aware of is thus key. A point I often hear about in terms of the benefits of cycling is the interactions you can have such as making eye contact with others. For some people, eye contact can be threatening and with good reason. So it’s also about creating a society where people feel that they can safely interact with other people without feeling harassed or discriminated against. We need to recognise that car-free space can be a very welcoming and inclusive space but not unless we make an effort to make it so.

How do you think the cultural dimension of cycling promotion should be woven into physical infrastructure planning?

Some of these cultural activities are really important and there are some good examples from East London like the Cycle Sisters, that work to get more muslim women cycling. When neighbourhoods undergo changes, people can be excluded from new infrastructure by simply not knowing about it or feeling that cycling something isn’t for them. We need to have programs in different communities that are led by people from those communities to get the whole value of the infrastructure, to make sure things are put in the right place and that the infrastructure meets the actual needs of people.

What sometimes worries me is that these things get counterposed against each other. It’s been a tradition in the UK to blame people who don’t cycle to have a cultural deficit: for example that women don’t cycle because they are nervous about getting sweaty so if they are shown that they can cycle in high heels and makeup and brush their hair when they get to work they will be alright. One has to be careful that we aren’t saying that people don’t cycle because there is something wrong with them. Cycling could be for everyone, we just need to ensure that the conditions are there, and that means the cultural infrastructure as well as the physical infrastructure. It’s not an either or. You need to have an iterative process where the cultural, community led work feeds into what is getting designed.

It’s also important to remember that in the UK, the people that are less likely to cycle are also less likely to have cars, so the fact that they are excluded from cycling is even worse because they already have fewer alternatives. Such vulnerable groups need to be included in cycling planning more than that typical white guy in his 30s.

What are some core challenges to increase the use of bicycles for daily trips in UK cities? How do you see cycling progressing in the coming year? 

Lots of stuff is still hanging in the balance. Take the example of low traffic neighbourhoods and measures to restrict car use more broadly. A lot of people are saying that on the one hand, we can’t impose this now as people are going through a really difficult time. On the other hand, if we don’t do it now and people go back to their old habits after the lockdown, car use will rise. We have already lost the brief break from the really high levels of air pollution we have in cities like London. Congestion levels have gone back to normal, and cycling has somewhat tailed off during the week.

Back in March, there was a period where we thought that like Spain and Italy, we wouldn’t be able to leave the house and cycling would be banned, but people recognised daily exercise was really important and I’m glad a full lockdown didn’t happen. During that period, people interacted with their local environment in ways that they perhaps hadn’t before. They had the experience and appreciation of using green space and more quiet streets, and the potential for a more local life where we aren’t travelling to the city centre, coming back late and hardly interacting with family and friends. Things have been hard, but people have also seen the benefits of that more local lifestyle. Recreational cycling has jumped on the weekend and that shows more people have fixed up their bike and tried it out again.

There is indeed momentum, certainly in London and other places such as Glasgow, Leicester, or Manchester for example. We are also currently looking at hundreds of thousands of people becoming part of low traffic neighbourhoods. This is really quite a big change. People will have to adjust to such changes, but in many boroughs, there is a sense that they do want to tackle car use and provide alternatives. They are trying to do things differently, are being bold, even if that is really hard. The fact that there are policymakers and planners locally that want to do this and that even the public who aren’t cyclists want to see things done differently and reduce air and noise pollution is important to recognise. At the local level, there is a lot to be hopeful about.