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Going Places: Sustrans’ Clare Maltby on Walking and Cycling-Friendly Cities

30 March 22 words: Adam Pickering

Since the pandemic hit, getting around on our own steam - whether that be through walking, cycling, scooting, or skating - has seen something of a renaissance. This goes hand-in-hand with an increased awareness of our human need for access to green space and the ongoing climate crisis. With infrastructure popping up to support this trend, and various schemes hoping to help communities get on their bikes, our Environment Editor Adam Pickering had a chat with Clare Maltby - the Nottingham-based Director for the Midlands and East region at leading active travel charity Sustrans - about the work the charity’s doing to make it easier for people to get around in environmentally friendly ways, creating healthier communities, and breaking the car habit.

So Clare, do you want to start by telling our readers what Sustrans’ work is all about?
Our vision is a society where the way that we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone. One of our main priorities, for example, is looking after the National Cycle Network (NCN) under our Paths for Everyone programme. So that's about having cycle routes that really connect places and people that are traffic free, that are safe and accessible, and good quality. 

Our second priority is creating liveable cities and towns for everyone. So it's much more place-based; making sure people can get everything they need so they can enjoy their areas and thrive, without needing a car, without needing to drive. It's about creating places that have social connection, have access to green space, have roots and character, where people can move around healthily. We're not anti-driving, but it's about making sure that those other options are there and people can get what they need without being reliant on cars.

We also do a lot of work in Nottingham with job seekers, workplaces, and schools. Those projects are about empowering and enabling people to overcome barriers to cycling - building their skills and confidence, and getting bikes to people who need them. So we get free reconditioned bikes to job seekers, we give people bike maintenance skills so that if they've got a bike, they can keep it on the road. It has a huge impact, and the feedback that we get about what a difference that makes is amazing. During lockdown we did a lot of work around getting free bikes to key workers, working with Ridewise and Nottingham Bikeworks.

Why do you think cycling and active travel are such important issues? 
Well the way that we travel has this really tremendous impact on places and on people. So we might think we're just moving through an area, but that's always impacting on the people that live in that area. It's always somebody's neighbourhood. If you think about the really pressing challenges facing urban leaders right now - climate change, air pollution, public health problems like obesity, mental health problems, children's independence and freedom, inequality, isolation and loneliness - they're all affected by how we travel. And so although active travel alone can't be the solution to all of that, it's a big part of it. 

And, you know, walking and cycling is really fun, it's really joyous, it's really healthy. So it's a good reason to want to invest in that and support people to do that more on its own merits. It's about having really good options so that walking and cycling can be the right option where it fits, or using the train or the bus can be the right option where that fits. Those short car journeys do add up - there's a third more traffic on the road than there was just 10 years ago. 

An important focus to what we do at Sustrans is around equity. So we know that not everybody benefits from walking and cycling and pleasant neighbourhoods at the moment. And we want to do work with people and in places which challenge that inequity, and make sure that everybody can benefit from these activities, whether that's around social deprivation or disability, race, gender, we want to make sure everybody feels comfortable and benefits from active travel.

I moved to Lenton in March 2020, but I used to live Mapperley way, and I’ve done a lot more cycling since - partly because the route’s flatter and it's just more easily cyclable into town, but also because there’s such a fantastic bike lane on Castle Boulevard too, it's much more appealing than the hills and heavy traffic of Mansfield Road.
Yeah so I'm from Arnold in Nottingham, and now live to the east of the city, but I spent quite a few years living and working in Cambridge and because so many people there cycle, it just feels like a really normal thing to do. You get the kind of critical threshold of people doing it, and then you get the provision for it and safe junctions, for example, and when you've got really good routes to take people where they want to go, it just makes all the difference.

We do a lot of co-design work, where we design street space collaboratively - with communities, with residents, with businesses, with schools - and we get people in really early doors, not just a consultation of proposed answers, but to get people in to understand how do you want to use this space? What are your concerns about this space? What are your aspirations for this space? Because I think motorised traffic is spoiling a lot of the places we live in right now, and it's making us unhealthy, and it's making us unhappy as well. Is it right that young children can't play out or walk independently to school? Is that the kind of life we want? I think a lot of people say no, not really. I think the size of the prize is big. So yeah, worth aiming for.

Moving on to the portrait bench project that we're here to discuss. Are you able to tell me a little bit more about that?
We've got this great opportunity, working with the Department for Transport (DfT), to install what we call portrait benches - the idea is part of celebrating the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. We've got funding to put in these life-size steel portraits of local heroes onto the NCN. It’s about adding a bit of art, a bit of creativity, and a bit of a talking point to these routes, to make them a destination. And also to ask the communities that we work in, who are your local heroes, which local people would you like to celebrate? 

The NCN does already have some art, whether it's commissioned graffiti art on the railway bridges, or whether it's sculptures, bits of poetry or wildlife information boards, and they seem to bring it to life and make it an interesting trip out. I think local heritage, local roots are a really important part of placemaking and building interest and excitement. There's going to be a bench along the River Leen corridor in Basford and everyone can get involved by nominating who they’d like to celebrate via our website.

Your volunteer network sounds like another great excuse for people to get active, and support their community as well. 
Yeah, and volunteering actually benefits you, it makes you feel better and healthier. It's good for mental health. It's good for making friends. It's that sense of well being that you put something back into the community. So yeah, we get great feedback from the people that support and volunteer with us. And it's not just volunteering on the NCN, there's other volunteer projects like for our schools work and community engagement work too.

Sounds great. Do you want to speak more about the work you’re doing around schools?
We have a really active School Streets project across twelve schools in Nottingham, and that's where we close the road to motor traffic at drop off and pickup times, to encourage people to walk and cycle and scoot to school if they can. It changes that environment outside the school, so it makes it much safer - you don't have the crazy parking and shenanigans that you get, up and down the country at that time of day. It makes it more appealing and a much healthier start to the school day. We're doing co-design with the residents and the pupils in some of those schools as well, about how we can make permanent changes to the road layout. An incredible number of young people are still dropped off by car to school, so we're trying to help people to change that balance.

I know you do a lot of work around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNS) - there are a couple of these schemes being implemented around Sherwood and the north of the city, and you do obviously see a lot of people with gripes about such schemes on social media, but actually, when you look at the survey of the residents that have to live there and put up with the traffic, they were overwhelmingly behind the ideas. And as I understand it the evidence shows that after LTNs are implemented, the favourability rating goes up even more?
We've got so much evidence for that - we do these big longitudinal studies across several cities around the UK, called the Bike Life study, and it collects a representative sample of views. There's huge support for those kinds of changes, reallocating space away from car traffic, and rebalancing towards walking and cycling, designing for people.

What we find is you do get a minority who are opposed to change who are often quite vocal, you might also have some who are really supportive too, who are also very vocal, but what you've got in the middle is a lot of people who are open-minded, or who don't quite know what they think, but are open to trying something new, because they know there's stuff that could be better and that they want to explore it. Yeah, I think it does get quite heated, but only because people care and it matters to them. 

What we say to politicians, when we're trying to raise their ambition, is hold your confidence, hold your nerve - because actually, the majority of people do support these kinds of changes and they know that we need to tackle these problems and try something new, you know? The support is there. 

Also, we know that the vast majority of people want to do something to tackle climate change, the vast majority of people want to do something to tackle public health problems. So for me, it's about joining those dots and connecting those big aspirations to the kinds of changes on the ground that will help with that, and understanding that LTNs, or School Streets, these kinds of changes, they're transforming neighbourhoods, and helping us make those better, more positive choices. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes I just want to talk about why we’re committed to working in Nottingham. As a UK-wide charity we've had to think about where we put our efforts, and Nottingham City Council in particular is a council we really want to work with. They're really ambitious on becoming carbon neutral and are real leaders in supporting sustainable transport. They've also won this big Transforming Cities Fund, and they were the only city to get the full amount of that funding from the UK Government, because their plans were so good. There's lots of good things happening locally.

Looking forward, we’re really keen to work in three particular areas: Beechdale, St. Anne's, and Bulwell. We want to build on our relationships in those areas, because we know there's a lot of change and new infrastructure coming in. We're also keen to make connections with the arts and creativity sectors, with people working in empowerment and civic engagement, with health and social justice. We think transport and travel has such wide applicability, so we don't just need to talk to the transport people.

Ways to support Sustrans:

  • Nominate a local hero for the new portrait bench: what local figure from the last 70 years would you like immortalised as a life-size steel figure by a bench on the River Leen? Nominations close at midnight on 11 April 2022. 
  • Volunteer with Sustrans: looking after the National Cycle Network or with community focused projects. Lots of ways to get involved from light touch casual volunteering to more involved roles.
  • Donate: support Sustrans’ activity in communities, fund a design feasibility study into new routes, or help us take decision makers on a study tour to show what’s possible and raise ambition for great infrastructure.
  • Follow Sustrans on social media: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram:
  • Residents of Beechdale, Bulwell or St Anns, and community groups can get in touch and share thoughts in the local forums Sustrans will be building. If you are part of a Nottingham group that could link with us, please get in touch via [email protected]
  • Encourage your school to take part in the Big Walk and Wheel annual schools’ competition from 21 March -1 April 
  • Donate your old bike to Ridewise or Bikeworks for reconditioning to pass on to someone who is on a low income or searching for work.
  • Consider how you travel and explore making more of your short journeys by walking and cycling.

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