The Practical Democracy Podcast

How can we improve democracy today?
A podcast about making practical change, with guests from public bodies and civil society.

Episode 12: Travel infrastructure for everyone

Featuring: Will Norman, London's Walking & Cycling Commissioner


Welcome back to the Practical Democracy Podcast! To kick off Season 2, host Sabine Groven talks to Will Norman, London's Walking & Cycling Commissioner, about the importance of active travel and how we move away from cars towards a cleaner, greener and healthier future.

You can read a full transcript for this episode down below.



Episode 12 transcript

Will Norman: The strategy that we’ve got is not about saying it’s not about saying this all needs to be car-free or anti-car. It’s about providing a safe, easy alternative, enabling people to ditch their car and think, actually, it’s easier, it’s quicker, it’s more fun, it’s healthier, to walk, to cycle, or to use public transport, and that for me is the future.

Sabine Groven: Hello, and welcome to the Practical Democracy podcast by Delib. My name is Sabine Groven, and I’ll be speaking with some great movers and shakers working to make practical change today. Facing a climate emergency, changing the way we travel is essential, but how can you create a cycling and walking infrastructure network that benefits everyone? How do you get more people using active travel? And does the car have to budge to achieve this? To answer my questions, I spoke with an expert in the field.

WN: My name’s Will Norman. I’m London’s walking and cycling commissioner.

SG: I’m very interested in finding out how Will is changing Londoners’ behaviour and what we can learn from the work that he is doing.

WN: London’s been a walking city for years. It’s a wonderful city to walk around, but I think in terms of cycling, when I came into the role, London was on the cusp of some change. Under the previous administration, under Boris Johnson, change had started. There had been a couple of new proper cycle routes built in London, but they were exceptions, and they were good, or some parts of them were really good, and it sort of showed the promise, and it showed the potential London had to become, I think, a really high quality cycling city as well as a good walking city.

But as I said, those were exceptions. And so my priority was rather, how do we make that business as normal and business as usual, rather than just this is an exception? It’s a great cycle route on this road but actually you can really only get from A to B here. So when I came in that was sort of the thing that I had in the back of my mind, rather than making this a sort of exception, how do we make it a normal? I think safety was the key priority. The city has been, for years, for decades, has been designed around the car. But the change had begun to happen and how do we accelerate that?

Clearly good infrastructure, good cycling infrastructure, safe cycling lanes is absolutely essential, but it also needed a systemic change from a policy perspective. We brought in a new mayor’s transport strategy that had active travel really at the centre of that, but that also needed to be replicated in the planning, policy, in the environment strategy, across the board. So making the streets safe for people, designing for people rather than for cars was essential, making that business as usual, and we also set our vision zero policy, which is all about how do we reduce the number of people being killed and injured and seriously injured on our roads to zero. At the moment over 3,000 people are killed or seriously injured on London’s road every year. That’s unacceptable and we need to change that, and part of that is the safer streets, but there are other components to that policy as well.

SG: Feeling unsafe is a large reason why people don’t cycle. That’s why I haven't been on a bike in Bristol city centre more than twice in the almost five years that I’ve lived here. I wanted to hear from Will how we works to ensure people feel empowered to cycle in the capital.

WN: We do a lot of research. All the research shows that the biggest barrier for more people cycling is perceptions of safety. People want to feel safe on the roads, and people worry that they’re not. And we know that where we make the streets safer, where we put in the cycle routes, we see a huge increase in the number of people cycling, which shows that when you build it, people come, you know? And so the infrastructure, making the streets safer is absolutely fundamental. It changes things and the numbers increase.

When I say you build it and people will come, not everybody comes though. There’s a sort of next part to this. The fundamental piece is getting the infrastructure right for cycling, but after that, then you need to work and engage with communities, you need to have community projects. There are other barriers, cycle parking, for example, access to bicycles in the first place, the confidence way-finding. So there are other things that then need to be built onto that to sort of allow, to enable more people to access the network you’ve built.

SG: There’s a lot that needs adding up in order to create a network for cycling, and I would love to cycle to uni or the office. So I asked Will how do you go about it, and for example, how can a city like Bristol do the same thing?

WN: So there are two ways that make a network for cycling. Part of this is looking at main roads, and where you’ve got main roads with busy traffic, you need to be looking at protected cycle routes. That is where you’ve got a separate cycle lane that provides protection for people from the vehicles. That protection can be done through curbs and through raised platforms and that sort of thing, or they can be - and this is something we learnt during the Covid crisis - that actually you can do things very quickly with bollards and barriers and that way, which is cheaper and safer to deliver that safe space. So on the main roads you need to provide protection.

But there is also, most cities, and Bristol’s exactly the same as London here, that there’s a network of residential roads, and so you can use those quieter back streets as a mechanism of getting around as well. But those quieter back streets really do need to be quieter, and you need direct routes. If you're wiggling around left, right and all over the place, and you’re cycling three times as far to get from A to B people won’t use that, so they’ve got to be appropriate to do that. But one of the things we brought in to London were quality standards to the number of vehicles that we say constitute a quieter route. What proportion, if there’s an industrial estate at one end, and it’s all heavy goods lorries going into that industrial estate, well that’s not a good area for cycling, so you bring in quality standards and saying, well actually if there’s too many cars using those roads or if the cars are too fast then you need to bring in measures of reducing that. You could filter the roads, you could create low-traffic neighbourhoods, you can put in speed restrictions, there are often different measures. So there are two key ways to build that cycling network: protection on the main roads and then making sure that the quieter back roads are quieter and then they provide the crossings to cross from one quieter area, across a main road, into another area, because in my view, the network is only as strong as its weakest point, and that’s why it’s so essential that you tackle those dangerous spots.

SG: You might have seen people using active travel more during the pandemic. You might have done so yourself. I asked Will how he and his team were able to adapt during a difficult time.

WN: Covid was a really dark cloud for London, like so many other cities around the world. There was a lot if suffering, a lot of grief, a lot of people isolating, a lot of stress, a lot of worry, a lot of people were ill. But one of the silver linings I saw during the first lockdown was actually there was less traffic on the roads, and what happened were people going out and using them in a different way. You saw families walking to their parks, people jogging in the street, kids cycling on roads that were previously really busy, and that was like, wow, there's a huge pent-up demand. It’s not that people don’t want to cycle, they don’t want to walk to their local areas. They just feel intimidated by this space.

The second thing that happened during Covid here in London was that you saw a huge drop in capacity because of social distancing, a huge drop in capacity of the public transport system. So with two-meter social distancing you could only carry a fraction of the number of people on the public transport system in buses and on the tube. And so if a small proportion of those people switched to the cars, suddenly you’re going to end up with a city that’s gridlocked, and you're going to have an air pollution crisis, so the very last thing you need in a respiratory disease pandemic is a whole load of extra air pollution. So we very quickly realised we’ve got to rapidly reallocate space so that people, those people who started using active travel to get around could continue to do that when they feel not safe or there wasn't the space on the public transport systems.

And so what we started doing was rolling out really rapid, temporary-type infrastructure. We delivered more cycle lanes than any other city on the planet during that period, over 100 kilometres in less than nine months. We delivered a hundred low-traffic neighbourhoods which brought in hundreds and hundreds of miles of low-traffic streets, making it safer and more pleasant to people to walk around. And we also brought in, one of my contention points were schools. At the time kids were just hearing all that, “You've got to stay two meters away from people. You’ve got to stay to stay two meters away from people.” If you've got a road next to the school and suddenly some kids sees that and is thinking, Two meters, two meters, they could step out into the road. So we created, we've been working with the concept called 'school street's where you close the streets around the school at drop-off and pick-up time. The idea behind that is to get more kids walking and cycling to school to reduce the air quality problems at school and to make it safer. We rolled that out. Within a year and a half we rolled out 350 school streets across London. So now a quarter of all primary schools in London have got school streets, enabling them to make that shift.

But we could do that all very quickly using cheaper materials, plastic bollards, what I call magic wands, the plastic bollards. We use cameras that would allow the emergency services vehicles through but it would use automatic number plate recognition to identity drivers that were breaking the rules there. So there was a huge amount of change. We also made our bus lanes 24 hours so that the bus and the public transport systems were becoming more reliable as well. So we saw a massive change in Covid that has sustained huge growth. The mode share for cycling doubled over that period, which is an astonishing change. It hadn't really changed for quite some time. The numbers have been going up but actually the proportion of journeys hadn’t. This massive transformation in London, and still, weekend numbers are doubling. I think last week we were at something like 20 percent up on cycling than pre-pandemic. So it's lasted. People’s behaviour is changing, and that is good news for our health of our city. It’s good news for the environment. And it's good news for our economy.

Public health is vital. We have the most inactive generation of kids in history. We’ve got an inactivity crisis that we're sort of essentially, over the years we've designed physical activity out of our lives, and the consequences of that are terrible for our physical health, in terms of chronic disease, diabetes, heart disease, but also in terms of our mental health, in terms of depression, anxiety, dementia, a whole raft of things. So we know that active people do better in almost every way, and if people can do 20 minutes of activity a day it will cut all cause mortality, that’s the risk of dying from all, any disease, by 20 percent. If I could invent a pill as good as physical activity then I would have Nobel prizes up to my armpits. This is something that can radically change our public health system, and I think during Covid, what we saw were actually the inequalities in health were exacerbated, and those people who are more disadvantaged, who are more vulnerable from chronic diseases were affected in a greater way. So for me that really exemplified why this is such an important crisis that we have to do deal with.

The consequence of this is then, how do we design physical activity back into every day life? Our transport system is absolutely key to that. We worked with, the whole approach that we’ve taking in terms of our transport strategy is called Healthy Streets. It's about shifting people from inactive car journeys and polluting car journeys to cleaner, greener, and healthier forms of transport, walking, cycling, and public transport, and so we worked, we had a brilliant public health expert called Lucy Sanders work with us, develop the Healthy Street strategy. Not only was that embedded in our transport strategy, it’s also embedded in our environment strategy, which is also tackling air pollution. It’s also embedded in our planning strategy, the London Plan, because it's hard enough embedding this new infrastructure and changing the streets that have been built, we need to make sure that our buildings and our streets of the future have these facilities built in. So the health approach has been integral to our transport strategy. Everything we’ve been doing is around how do we get people to use more active, sustainable transport, but that then gets embedded in all the other strategies that help support that.

SG: Something that we need to address is the car. All this work with cycling and walking infrastructure, how does much does it impact driving in the city, and is a car-free London something that Will aims for?

WN: I think that cars are important. For some people they’re essential, people with say, for example, with disabilities, but also frankly there are a lot of journeys that can be done, that might need to be done by car. So if you’re going to B&Q to pick up some gravel or something, to put that on the back of a bike is unrealistic. So there is a role for the car in the city. What I think is incredible is just how many journeys can easily be done by other means. So I think the school run is a really good example. A quarter of all car journeys in London in the morning are associated with the school run, that’s dropping your kids off at school. Often those are local journeys, less than two kilometres. Now some of them might need to be done by cars, but many, many, millions of them won’t be. Millions of journeys don’t need to be done by car, and so the strategy that we’ve got is not about saying this all needs to be car-free or anti-car. It's about providing a safe, easy alternative, enabling people to ditch their car and think, Actually, it’s easier, it’s quicker, it’s more fun, it’s healthier, to walk, to cycle, or to use public transport, and that for me is the future.

It isn't being anti-car. It's not saying this needs to be totally car-free. It’s about everybody thinking, 'actually, there are alternatives here. I don't need to use a car for that journey', and actually there are enough of those journeys to think, 'well actually do I need to use the car? Do I need to own a car at all? I could be a member of a car-club or I could share a car with somebody else if I need for those few, rare occasions I do?' So for me this is not about being anti-car. This is about how do you present easy alternatives so that people have other choices and enable them to use cleaner, greener, more sustainable modes I suppose.

But it also worth thinking that a lot of disabled, in terms of mode of transport, the biggest mode of transport for disabled people is walking. The same proportion of disabled people use cycles and bikes as they do taxis. So this is not to say that disabled people all have to use the car. Actually making the streets safer for people to walk and cycle, and by walking I include wheeling, to be honest, if someone’s in a wheelchair. And making the streets safer, making the crossings better, making sure that there’s dropped curbs, making sure that the pavements are in good condition, that’s all essential, and that again can help everybody, irrespective of their age or ability or background or whatever to actually make those local journeys in a clear, greener way.

When anybody's doing meaningful change in anything it creates anxiety, it can create a backlash, and it certainly invokes passions on both sides. I think particularly in my experience, local transport is something that people really do get passionate about, and I’ll be honest, there are people who really don’t like the work that we're doing and the changes that we're bringing about, but they are a vocal minority, and time and time and time again, whether it be through the elections, through the ballot box, or through consultations or through statistically valid surveys, the majority of people, and the vast majority in a lot of cases, support the changes that need to happen in London.

Most people don't want their kids to be breathing in toxic air. Most people don't want 3,000 people being killed and seriously injured on the roads. Most people do want their kids to be able to walk to school safely. Most people do want to be able to walk to their shops and their local high streets to thrive. So while there is opposition or people do get angry and feel particularly passionate about it, that is not the case for the majority of people, and I think we all take great heart in that and continue to bring about the changes that we know that are needed.

SG: Will and his team have achieved a lot since 2016, but still a lot of work needs to be done. And moving forward they have some ambitious goals.

WN:We have some very clear targets. We set the target, when I came into the job, when Sadiq, mayor of London came in, about 64 percent of all journeys were made by walking, cycling and public transport. We have a strategy, a 25-year strategy that will get that to 80 percent of journeys. So that’s a radical transformation from 64 percent of journeys to 80 percent of journeys in London being walked, cycled, or using public transport, and we have trackers to show that that’s happening. We have counters, and I’m a huge believer in data. Data helps us make the right decisions, so we track how many people are cycling, how many people are walking, how many people are using the bus and the tube, and that helps us direct the investment. So we have a very clear target in terms of the active travel and sustainable travel. I think the other clear target that is ambitious but I would not have any other target in this space is around safety. As I mentioned our vision zero strategy is the goal to eliminate all road deaths and serious injuries on London’s roads. Far too many people are hurt while moving around the capital, and that has to change. So that’s about changing the streets, making the vehicles safer, making speed safer, and making sure that behaviour is safer, which is why we partner with the police. So they’re two key goals, shifting to sustainable, cleaner transport and making sure that all transport is safer for everybody across the city.

SG: There you go. Thank you so much to Will Norman for talking to me. I really enjoyed our conversation. If you want to find out more about the work that Will does you can follow him on Twitter at @WillNorman. This episode is hosted, edited, and produced by me, Sabine Groven, for Delib. Our creative director is Tiffany Maddox. I’ll be back in a month with another episode. Until then, you can visit newsroom.delib.net for great content on people and organisations making practical change improving democracy. Bye!


Make sure to check out Will Norman on Twitter. The Practical Democracy Podcast is produced and hosted by Sabine Groven with creative direction from Tiffany Maddox.