Active Travel and sustainability: Are temporary schemes causing a Winter of discontent for winter maintenance professionals?

In May 2020, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a £2 million boost to active travel schemes, encouraging the public to walk or cycle as an alternative to using other modes of transport.

While promoting active travel had been on the Government agenda for some time, the impact of Coronavirus saw statutory guidance for Local Authorities fast tracked and schemes quickly implemented in towns and cities across the country.

In November 2020, the team at New Winter Approach, a collaborative group of winter maintenance industry leaders, hosted a round table discussion to explore the sustainability of active travel routes during the winter months.

Joined by Local Authorities, industry bodies and winter service providers, the group explored topics from training to sustainability.

What is Active Travel?

Put simply, the term active travel means making journeys via physically active means – primarily walking and cycling.

Over the past few decades, town planning has focussed on accommodating the use of cars, effectively relegating pedestrians and cyclists to second place. The Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, published in 2017, set out the Government’s strategy to make active travel the natural choice for shorter journeys. Since then, the focus has shifted, with the arrival of Coronavirus pushing the issue higher up the Government agenda.

The impact of COVID-19 on Active Travel initiatives

Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the global Coronavirus pandemic resulted in seismic changes in the way we live and work. With a countrywide mandate in place to work from home where possible, the amount of traffic on the roads reduced significantly.

At the same time, with people being told to stay close to home and to pursue outdoor exercise while gyms and sports facilities were closed, as well as the safety concerns associated with public transport, the number of people opting to walk and cycle has risen exponentially.

In May 2020, the UK Government announced a £250 million emergency active travel fund, the first stage of the £2 billion investment, and part of the £5 billion in new funding announced for cycling and buses earlier in the year. The move acknowledged that resolving how we can travel while maintaining social distancing is one of the biggest challenges faced by the government as the lockdown is lifted.

As part of this tranche of new funding, councils were granted the power to restrict car and vehicle access, widen pavements, install cycle lanes, create new zebra crossings and implement low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) – essentially handing local authorities the ability to quickly alter the way traffic moves through a town or city.

Sustainability and the issue of Winter Maintenance

Many of the changes being brought in around the country are a temporary response to the Coronavirus crisis. However, research carried out by the BBC, which has been echoed by the team at A New Winter Approach, suggests that many local authorities would like to make them permanent.

Yet, with many of the schemes implemented as temporary solutions – often in a rush in response to the raft of emergency funding – the question of longer-term sustainability arises. While many schemes have been a resounding success, other areas are seeing money being spent to reverse ill-thought out schemes, or to carry out retrospective community consultation.

In many cases, assessing the success (or otherwise) of walking and cycling schemes will depend on the level of usage. Making a case for future funding of schemes is reliant upon demonstrating that those already in use are used efficiently and effectively.

Almost inevitably, as we hit the colder winter months, usage figures fall. Pathways become unsafe and slippery, winter service treatment decisions directly affect the safety of path and cycle path users – all of which directly impacts the efficiency of the network. While the focus on active travel is inevitably here to stay – and rightly so – this move towards focussing on pedestrians and cyclists doesn’t always take seasonality into consideration.

The power of data

Adrian Runacres, Investigation and Risk Management Consultant commented “The issue that many Local Authorities are encountering is that there is very little data available to make a decision on how to treat these Active Travel routes. We’ve been talking to some Local Authorities who are doing trials – comparing data on residual salt levels and temperatures of the pathways so that they can explore the best approach. There’s undoubtedly a recognition that cycleways and footways are increasingly important, but a lack of data and knowledge about how to approach the issue.”

“There is very little data available to make a decision on how to treat these Active Travel routes.”

Adrian Runacres, Investigation and Risk Management Consultant

The issue, the group collectively concludes, is that these routes haven’t been given as much prominence as roads, with experience suggesting that they’re left to piggyback off the treatment of carriageways.

Adrian goes on to explain that a survey of Local Authorities suggested that around a third undertook precautionary treating/salting on some of the footways, but that these were mainly pedestrian areas in cities. With many of the panel directly involved in the treatment process, from the supply of salt, to vehicles and route tracking software, anecdotal evidence and industry feedback suggests that much of the current treatment of pavements is done by bounce-off from the main carriageways.

“The major issue with relying on bounce-off is that it is far from scientific,” says Alan Sheen, Director at Eurodome. “Even in the best possible scenario, relying on bounce-off will give sporadic and uneven coverage. It also doesn’t take into account that pathways are often constructed differently, shaded by trees and hedges and not warmed by the flow of traffic and heat from fast moving vehicles. To truly ensure that these routes are properly treated and maintained, different methods need to be employed.”

A holistic approach to Winter Maintenance

“In a previous role, we looked at social routes to school,” Adrian explains. “Local Authorities often recommend using low traffic routes for children to walk and cycle to school. However, the very nature of these pathways being in low traffic areas – and the fact that many Local Authorities rely on bounce-off from the main carriageways – means that these are likely to be the ones that haven’t been treated. We’re sending vulnerable people – our young children – out onto untreated and potentially treacherous pathways and cycle routes. We need more joined up thinking. For Active Travel Schemes to work – especially to maintain usage levels of the winter – we need to take a more holistic approach to planning.”

In December 2020, the National Winter Service Research Group (NWSRG), in conjunction with the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE) published a guidance document focussed on planning for winter service delivery.

The document – which looks at statutory duties, best practice, local policy and operational planning for winter service delivery as a whole – also explores the need to assess and treat footpaths and cycleways.

Steve Spender, Chief Executive of the IHE, comments “Training providers need to make sure that Winter Maintenance is part and parcel of the active travel syllabus. Failing to do so means that routes can become inaccessible for treatment, creating an ongoing and costly issue for Local Authorities and Winter Maintenance suppliers alike. Convincing elected members it is worthy of added investment after implementation is a tough call. Maintenance should be considered – and budgeted for – from the outset.”

“Training providers need to make sure that Winter Maintenance is part and parcel of the active travel syllabus.”

Steve Spender, Chief Executive of the IHE

Alan adds, “My co-director at Eurodome is from the Netherlands, where walking and cycling is prioritised over and above car and road users. There, pathways are known to freeze sooner and stay colder longer so they are treated separately, not as part and parcel of the road network. In the UK, we’re struggling to get to grips with the fundamentals.”

The fact is the UK’s cycle paths are often segregated from the main highways. When Local Authorities rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment of roads, paths and cycleways, these segregated routes become even harder to treat. With many cycle routes fitted with barriers to restrict unauthorised access, traditional winter maintenance vehicles struggle to access the space.

Steve Sinnott from Econ Engineering, which supplies winter maintenance vehicles, agrees, “Employing the right technology for the job is key. Feedback from our customers suggests that accessing narrow and off-carriageway cycle routes does present an issue. To do the job efficiently, winter maintenance teams need to adapt their approach. Doing so will help to ensure ongoing and safe use throughout the winter months.”

“Feedback from our customers suggests that accessing narrow and off-carriageway cycle routes does present an issue. To do the job efficiently, winter maintenance teams need to adapt their approach.”

Steve Sinnott, Econ Engineering

A best practice approach

On a cold night in winter with a frost forecast, UK highway authorities spread up to 35,000 tonnes of rock salt in order to keep the nation’s key roads open and safe.

As well as being a financial burden in terms of the salt itself, the spreading and the potential longer-term damage to concrete infrastructure, adding salt to water courses poses an environmental risk. The burden to Local Authorities to take a best practice approach to winter maintenance extends to path and cycle ways, which are often located in hard to reach spots, behind barriers or across authority borders.

If active travel is to be successfully implemented, the group concludes, it needs to be properly planned and maintained. In Leeds, the ambition to create 500 miles of safer cycling routes across the city comes on the back of the opening of the Leeds to Bradford Cycle Superhighway – a 23km segregated cycle route.

The difference with this project, says Steve Spender from the IHE, is that they’ve always recognised that maintenance and encouraging usage in the winter months is absolutely critical to the overall success of the plan. While the detail is under review, the planning process in Leeds seems to encompass the holistic approach that the team is keen to engender.

The changing role of technology

To treat the roads, engineers use various solutions to provide access to weather forecast and road temperature data. When the roads are close to freezing, highway engineers face a difficult decision of whether to risk unnecessary financial expenditure by salting the roads or face the implications of not doing so if the roads go untreated.

Accessing and applying the same approach to roads and cycleways may go some way to finding a solution – but the construction and location of these routes mean that temperatures do differ.

Thermal mapping can also play an important role, helping to identify microclimatic features and other causes of temperature variability such as road construction. While the profile of newly constructed cycle routes will no doubt be better known, meeting the needs of interlinked historic routes becomes trickier.

By using thermal mapping, Local Authorities can gain a better understanding of the varying temperatures along interconnected routes – allowing treatment to be specifically planned according to risk and need.

Using the latest technology, some Local Authorities are also employing sensors and the IoT to access real-time data on road conditions – facilitating a far more accurate and proactive approach. While this sensor technology allows a far better use of resources, implementation of the technology is focussed on carriageways, with pavements and cycleways a secondary consideration.

By building winter maintenance considerations into the planning stage of any newly constructed routes, authorities can access the data required to fulfil obligations most cost effectively.

The danger of not treating active travel routes

The harsh reality is, with budgetary issues exacerbated by COVID, investing in new technology isn’t always achievable. At the same time, the requirement to cover additional Active Travel routes with less funding and limited resources simply isn’t practical.

Adrian explains, “Affordability simply isn’t an excuse these days. Local Authorities need to work with caution. When accidents happen due to untreated roads and pathways, litigation is a very real threat. Many councils have tried to employ the use of self-help schemes, putting grit bins out for residents to treat their own roads. The issue is, if the job is not done properly, individuals who are trying to help could be put in the position of actually causing an accident. Despite the pressures, Local Authorities need to shift the focus from the cost of treatment, to the cost of not treating.”

“Affordability simply isn’t an excuse these days. Local Authorities need to work with caution. When accidents happen due to untreated roads and pathways, litigation is a very real threat.”

Adrian Runacres, Investigation and Risk Management Consultant

Next Steps

The round table event was a great opportunity for Local Authorities, industry bodies, winter service providers and key players from across the industry to share their views. The outcome was a lively discussion, highlighting some of the current concerns, with a primary focus on how to implement active travel maintenance under already stretched budgets.

In the interests of collaboration, we’d love to hear your views. Are you a Local Authority that has got to grips with the issue? Do your budgets make it an impossible task? Are you a winter maintenance provider who has collated data that might provide Local Authorities with the data they need to make informed decisions? Leave a comment below to join the discussion.

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