Former Olympic champion Chris Boardman has promised to take England’s streets back from motor traffic after being given a powerful new official role which will see councils rated, Ofsted-style, for how well they make space for cycling and walking.
Boardman, who won gold in the velodrome at the 1992 Games and raced in the Tour de France, has been named as the first head of Active Travel England (ATE), which will hand out funding for cycling and walking schemes and oversee designs.
One particularly significant change will make ATE a statutory consultee on any big planning application, making sure big developments consider how people will access them on foot and by bike, and not just by car.
Councils could lose funding if they try to install substandard schemes such as paint-only bike lanes, or delay work. The new organisation will inspect what is built and publish annual reports ranking councils on their performance, intended to mimic the role of Ofsted with schools.
“We’ll have the engineering capacity to say, ‘Let’s have a look at the design and we’ll help you,’” Boardman told the Guardian. “But we’ll also have the power to say: ‘It’s not good enough.’”
Boardman, who has given up his role with the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, in which from 2017 he was the region’s cycling and walking commissioner and then transport commissioner, said his aim was to create “a quiet revolution” in how people get around.
“Walking and cycling is the foundation of any sustainable transport system. You can encourage people to change all you like, but when it still takes bravery to cross a street, then people are going to drive,” he said.
“This is about enabling, and encouraging once you have the safe space. The message is: this is for people doing normal things in normal clothes, just having the choice of not having to do it in a car. And it’s in all our interests to face up to that.”
As well as bike paths on main roads, Active Travel England will set out standards for schemes intended to reverse the increasing dominance of motor traffic on smaller roads, where navigation apps have led to an increase in rat-running.
“We have a finite amount of space, and there’s over 20bn more miles being driven around homes than there were a decade ago,” Boardman said. “We’ve co-opted local streets to soak up traffic that roads were never designed for. It’s not going to be easy to unpick, but it’s really worth it.”
About a quarter of households in cities have no car, Boardman noted: “These are their roads and streets, too. Kids don’t have a choice to drive – they have to be driven. And these are their roads and streets, too, and they have the right to use them.”
Based in York with a staff of just under 100, ATE will also offer councils advice on dealing with any backlash over new cycle routes, or motor traffic reduction measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods.
Some schemes have seen negative media coverage, as well as local opposition which, while generally involving a small number of people, has spooked some councils into reversing changes.
Boardman said: “We always lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people want this. Every survey you see says, yes, I want my kids to be able to cycle and walk to school, but at the moment I don’t feel able to do anything else but drive them.
“Change isn’t going to be easy, but it’s essential. And it’s inevitable.”