When Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis appointed Dame Sarah Storey as Active Travel Commissioner for the SCR last year Jill Theobald attended the launch. Twelve months on and with the country reacting and adapting to COVID-19, she caught up with the most successful female British Paralympian of all time again – via Zoom – to find out why, with lockdown easing we must ‘lock in’ the active travel behavioural changes seen during the pandemic for a healthier, more active future   

“We’re at a crossroads or a fork in the road – which way are we going to go?”

It’s an interesting question posed by Dame Sarah Storey, Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region, when we talk about travel – and how we use and adapt our roads and pathways in the region during COVID-19 and beyond.

Indeed, when we reported on the World Champion cyclist and swimmer’s appointment back in our May 2019 issue, we quoted SCR Mayor Dan Jarvis saying the active travel agenda was ‘NOT a PR exercise – but instead all about sustainable travel and REAL exercise’.

Big Pedal 2020. Taken at a school in Sheffield with Dame Sarah Storey, a multi-gold medal winning Paralympian cyclist. Cycling with children along a path.

Sure enough, chatting to Dame Sarah via Zoom, it’s clear just how much of a mission she and the SCR team have been on from the get go, how that didn’t let up because of COVID-19, and now –  with restrictions starting to ease – she feels we are at a pivotal point for active travel.

“In terms of this particular health crisis, it’s horrific that we’ve needed something so stark to make us pay so much more attention to the importance of physical activity within public health,” she acknowledges.

But Dame Sarah and the SCR team had laid plenty of groundwork since her appointment and during COVID-19 – and have health, exercise, and sustainable transport plans for beyond the pandemic and into the next two decades.

“The idea we could do short journeys on our feet or two wheels has come into people’s conscience more – it’s become a reality they can manage.

One of Sheffield’s strengths is its Outdoor City tag and you see that with initiatives like Move More Sheffield, and Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park.

“Walking is one of the best forms of exercise, even 10 minutes a day is better than nothing. What we’ve found during this crisis is those people who started to walk because it was one of the reasons they could leave the house, massively improved their health and increased their life expectancy. Some of the health issues they were suffering with, because they previously weren’t active at all, became more manageable.

“Having spent the last 50 years designing exercise out of people’s lives by getting them door to door in a vehicle, now’s the time for the country to get people actively moving, especially for the shortest journeys.”

Going back to the beginning, Dame Sarah describes her appointment last year as ‘unexpected turn in the path’.

“It was a complete surprise,” she says. “I’d worked alongside British Cycling policy advocate Chris Boardman for several years and been involved in the Everyday Cycling campaigns which British Cycling ran.

“Because of that and my work on road safety and the changes needed to infrastructure, it all put me another step along my journey to this role. Like any new challenge, it’s an unexpected turn in the path but I talked with Chris and British Cycling and my family to see if I could balance the role with training because going to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was so important to me – and there’s another COVID-related twist in the tale!

“Dan Jarvis was so supportive and assured me my career in sport could be followed while SCR could have the advantages of working with someone like me who uses the roads for training every day, as well as understanding the needs of parents – as a mum of two – right across to the people travelling to work in the SCR who have been the hardiest commuters for years.

“I was really excited, but I don’t shy away from acknowledging how much I’ve learned over the last year. We’ve built a great team around me.”

There is a bigger group of people wanting to walk and cycle but there’s still that same challenge of the big motor lobby saying ‘no, roads are for cars’.

How did she view the SCR in terms of its strengths and challenges when it came to active travel?

“One of Sheffield’s strengths is its Outdoor City tag and you see that with initiatives like Move More Sheffield, and Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park. Both the universities are very active already, there’s the AWRC (Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre), while elsewhere in the region there’s the Doncaster cycle track at the Dome and so many beautiful parks, the Dearne Valley, the Don Valley, Rother Valley.

“So there’s already a huge level of activity and a lot of engaged people but also a lot of potential to improve where they could exercise and how they could incorporate activity into their daily lives, too, specifically around the roads and provision for active travel.”

Dame Sarah also found out a lot more about the needs of cycle groups at grassroots level after joining several on their bikes – pre-lockdown, of course.

“I was very well engaged with the Wheels for Wellbeing group in Hillsborough Park and we’re busy creating a regional coordinator for disability cycling. We want to have a group at Doncaster Dome, have earmarked a location in the east of Barnsley and looking at a site in Rotherham.

“We want anyone in the region with an impairment of any kind to find a way into cycling for everyday purposes, but it’s also a potential part of the pathway within British Cycling. I’m on the paracycling pathway at an elite level but underneath that it can be a postcode lottery and depends on if you live near somewhere that has access or could you borrow a bike.

“I also met with a Muslim women’s cycle group in Rotherham. It was heart-warming and a little bit of a shock moment, too, after they told me the way they are treated by people if they travel outside that group – it’s not just about safe facilities or fear of traffic but also the prejudice they face. But it was so lovely to ride with them and we hope to develop that network as well across the region but due to social distancing those group developments are on hold at the moment.”

As Dame Sarah herself acknowledges: “There’s so many strands to adapting to COVID” – including the impact on the SCR’s Active Travel Implementation Plan, a comprehensive network of how SCR would like active travel in the region to look by 2040.

“We were due to launch the ATIP on the anniversary of my appointment on March 23 ironically – everyone in our team will remember the day we locked down. We’re now hoping it will go before the Mayoral Combined Authority on June 1 for approval and then it can be made public.

“The ATIP is a guiding document that will allow us to fulfil some things early, if that’s required because of measures needed with COVID-19, or other areas that need to be adjusted as we adapt to the virus, the lockdown, the easing of lockdown and any subsequent changes depending on that R value. 

“We now need to have an emergency plan for each part of the region because what’s right for Sheffield city centre might not be right for Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham so we’re working with each of the district authorities to arrive at the best solution possible.

“All of the areas are already making progress though – parts of Doncaster town centre are pedestrianized between 10am and 4pm every day and in Sheffield there’s been widening of some pavements. Short pop-up bikeways are in their initial phase and there are further plans to evolve. But councils have had to deploy staff into other areas during lockdown, of course, delivering meals and PPE on the frontline, as well as a recovery plan for when easing happens so there’s had to be overlap.

“In lockdown we issued guidance notes to local authorities about moving quickly to capture those new to cycling and walking to make sure we locked in that behavioural change while it was still happening, before old habits retuned.

“The number of vehicles has crept up, but lockdown has given people a taste of what roads could be like if we had the right type of infrastructure to enable to use them with their feet or two wheels.

“Millions of 500 metre trips are made in cars every year because people felt they had no choice – now they had a choice and walked those distances because the car journey wasn’t essential travel.”

Lockdown also saw the interactive map launched by SCR last year return to collate people’s views on South Yorkshire’s network of roads, cycle paths and footpaths.

“We used it as part of the development of the ATIP and found that 90 per cent of the comments from the public matched with what local authorities were putting on their own network maps. During lockdown I asked for it to be re-opened so we could find out where challenges were for people with social distancing and how cycling and walking routes were affected with parked cars.

“We passed that information on to the local authorities and it’s been great to see lots of places around the UK quickly deploying these maps to help them, too.

“There is a bigger group of people wanting to walk and cycle but there’s still that same challenge of the big motor lobby saying ‘no, roads are for cars’. These are the same challenges we had before but we have a much shorter window potentially to implement the measures needed so it’s about working with the councils who own the roads and can place that infrastructure to say ‘Is this something you’d like to do for your residents, the people who work there? And how can we help you arrive at the best network?’”

And this is where businesses can play their part.

“Employers are a huge advocate group for putting in this infrastructure and telling councils what they want to see on certain roads,” says Sarah. “Businesses should join their voice with the army of people saying what they want in terms of pop-up cycle ways or trial infrastructure. The more councils know people want this, the easier it becomes to implement because it’s a big balancing act between businesses with huge amounts of equipment they can only ever transport in their vehicle and others who could walk or cycle. Businesses have a huge part to play in supporting this.”

And with companies starting to return to work, what is Dame Sarah’s message to employers and employees?

“I would absolutely encourage them to look at their active travel options and a travel plan for their workforce that means that, as well as the recommended staggered start times, they explore opportunities to get their staff to work without it being a single car journey.

“In SCR up to 40 per cent of journeys of up to a kilometre are still made in a car and could be walked. The average commute is nine miles – so while a few people might be doing 20 or 30 miles everybody else is doing far, far less. For those who are doing longer journeys it might be they could utilise a park and ride and then walk or cycle the last part.

“A third of households don’t have access to a car at all so we know COVID- 19 has affected people disproportionately on lower incomes and the recovery could affect them with public transport capacity being lower.

“If they are dependent on journey times being reliable so get to work on time then they really need other commuters to walk and cycle if possible – if they have no choice but to get the bus they need to know there will be a space for them, if they are walking or cycling they must be able to do that safely or if they do have a car they need to not be stuck in traffic.”

And e-bikes could be a possible solution, too – especially in a city of seven hills! – although Dame Sarah is disappointed there are currently no plans to provide grants or subsidies, as with electric vehicles.

“It’s a real shame and a missed opportunity – after all, if you’re giving up a car for an e-bike it should be majorly incentivised. An electric car still takes up the same space as a regular car.

“We’re looking into an e-bike for me to get to work quicker because I can’t use the trains through Hope Valley at the moment and I could potentially get to Sheffield faster because of the e-assist on the hills.”

Which brings us on to Dame Sarah and Mayor Dan’s lobbying work with the government in the run up to and beyond COVID – from attending a Downing Street meeting to outline their vision, their letter to PM Boris Johnson asking for walking and cycling to be at the heart of plans to get the country moving, and Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps announcing investing £2 billion in active travel.

“The meeting in February with (transport advisor) Andrew Gilligan was so positive. It was a meeting of like minds to share our plans and hear theirs!

“We wanted government direction on this, so it was great to see Grant Shapps saying this was a nationwide need to focus on active travel.

“This leadership from government provides assurances to councils to act with confidence that it’s not just us, this is happening across the UK.”

More recently still, the Department for Transport announced a national funding pot of £283 million to increase the frequency and capacity of bus and tram services and help people travel safely during COVID-19.

And swiftly after that announcement, communities in Yorkshire and the Humber found out they were to benefit from more than £27 million in funding to increase light rail services, regenerate local economies and make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists – including £2.6 million for the Sheffield Supertram to help increase the number of services as quickly as possible.

The Transport Secretary also amended laws to reduce red tape and halve the time it takes for councils to get these schemes up and running, helping local authorities accommodate for the step-change in behaviour as more people turn to cycling and walking.

Adds Dame Sarah: “Our authorities have already started implementing schemes for social distancing and we are now working to rapidly deploy this funding so that we can use it for pop-up cycle lanes and to widen footways, to get more people’s essential journeys by active travel and ease the demand on public transport, making space for those who most need it.

“By reclaiming space for people to move around, through low traffic neighbourhoods, pedestrianised town and city centres and the installation of bike routes on key corridors, we can transform the region in to a place where it becomes normal for people to choose to leave their cars behind.”

SCR Mayor – ‘Let’s seize the opportunity’

Mayor Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, said: “I’m looking forward to sharing our ambitious plan for active travel in South Yorkshire. Walking and cycling has always been at the heart of my transport strategy for the region and the impact of coronavirus has made active travel even more vital as more people choose to travel on foot or by bike.

“Our Active Travel Implementation Plan has been developed with the support of our local councils, active travel planning expert Brian Deegan and the public, who have made more than 4,000 comments on our online interactive map.

“As a result of this support, we have developed a plan which sets out how we will enable more people to walk and cycle for short, everyday journeys. It will connect our urban centres and cover rural routes, and will be accessible to all, including trikes and adapted bikes.

“During coronavirus we have seen what a world with less cars would look like. Air pollution has dropped, and families have been enjoying going out for a walk or cycle, reaping the health benefits that come with regular activity.

“We’ve had a glimpse of what can be – now we need to seize the opportunity with both hands.

“Active travel should be part of an even wider strategy – a green new deal to transform our economy, create millions of new jobs, and counter the economic damage the pandemic has caused.

“If we do nothing, the quiet roads, clear air and safer streets we have been experiencing will soon become a distant memory as gridlock, pollution and danger returns. That would be a colossal waste.”