DfT failing to properly track impact of active travel programme, MPs warn

Report finds department is not on course to meet targets and not doing enough to measure impact
Photo: Colin Underhill/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

03 Nov 2023

The Department for Transport is not on track to meet objectives to increase rates of walking and cycling, and does not properly understand the impact of its £2.3bn outlay on so-called “active travel”, MPs have warned.

DfT’s efforts to increase active travel have “seen disappointingly slow progress”, the Public Accounts Committee has said in a report published today.

The department’s objectives include a doubling of cycling rates, and a 6 percentage point increase in the proportion of children walking to school. But there has been no sustained increase in cycling rates, and fewer children now walk to school than when targets were set, the committee said.

DfT told the committee that it could not say with confidence that the targets will all be met, but that it was “looking very hard at the way we can secure the maximum benefits”. The department said it had set targets at a “very, very stretching level”.

The committee said the government has also not done enough to understand the impact and benefits of the £2.3bn in taxpayers’ money spent on active travel infrastructure between 2016 and 2021.

The DfT knows “too little” about the quality of the infrastructure that has been built, and has an incomplete understanding of what has been built because the majority of schemes have cost less than the amount required to monitor or evaluate them, MPs said.

Local authorities are only required to monitor or evaluate schemes that cost more than £2m, but average grant per project in the most recent traches of the Active Travel Fund was £750,000. 

PAC has asked DfT to publish its plans to evaluate active travel interventions by December.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of PAC, said: “The government itself estimates that every pound invested in active travel reaps around £4.30 in benefits, in health, in air quality, in decarbonisation. If true, these are significant levels of potential value for taxpayers’ money to be realised.

“But close monitoring is required to understand what works and why in active travel investment, and coherence and stability of funding is crucial should these schemes be given a chance to succeed. Our inquiry found these sadly lacking.

“Billions in taxpayers’ money appears to have been parachuted in by DfT on active travel without its impact being properly tracked. Without the evidence-based, collaborative and holistic approach now needed, the government’s ambitions in this area are likely to continue to go into reverse gear.”

The PAC report also warns that funding cuts of £233m made this year by the DfT could hold back objectives to increase active travel.

The Walking and Cycling Alliance, Sustrans, and the Local Government Association all wrote to the committee raising concerns that cuts to active travel funding make it very difficult for local authorities’ to deliver government’s ambition for increased active travel.

DfT told PAC that it did not think funding was a key issue limiting progress. A report by the National Audit Office, published in June, however, found that DfT’s modelling suggested that, with the reduced funding, the department was unlikely to get close to achieving its 2025 objectives. PAC said it is "not convinced that progress against DfT’s active travel objectives will be unaffected by the decisions made by the department to reduce funding".

The report also called for the department to give local authorities "greater certainty about the funding available for active travel to enable them to invest in and deliver long-term, ambitious active travel interventions". PAC said the considerable uncertainty in available funding, which is "often short-term, and provided at late notice", is holding councils back from being able to deliver succesful schemes. 

Additionally, the committee has urged the department to better communicate the benefits of active travel, saying it is "not convinced that DfT’s messaging around the positive changes that have been made to improve safety, such as revisions to the Highway Code, or the benefits of active travel have been communicated effectively to the general public".

A DfT spokesperson said: “We absolutely understand the importance of active travel, which is why we’ve invested a record £3bn to deliver better walking, wheeling and cycling schemes to people and places across the UK.”

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