Active travel schemes have more positive effects than people expect – ESRI

The impact of active travel schemes is often more positive than people expect, according to new ESRI research. The study, undertaken by the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit, reviewed international evidence on the effects of infrastructure changes designed to promote cycling and walking, including the impact on communities and public opinion.

The research, commissioned by the National Transport Authority and Fingal County Council, found strong international evidence that improving active travel facilities boosts rates of cycling and walking. Knock-on effects on local food and retail businesses tend to be positive or neutral, while such schemes can also reduce traffic congestion.

However, despite benefits of reduced emissions, better air quality and improved public health, proposals to alter existing infrastructure to facilitate active travel frequently face opposition from communities, usually based on negative expectations about the effects on businesses and traffic.

The review also points to multiple psychological biases that may hinder support, including “status quo bias” (the preference for things to remain the same even if change is beneficial), “primacy effects” (overweighting of the first piece of information encountered about schemes), “messenger effects” (evaluations of information based on who it comes from rather than what it contains) and “collective illusion” (e.g., belief among supporters of schemes that they are in a minority).   

The review further highlights design features of active travel schemes that maximise their benefits. Dedicated infrastructure that allows cyclists to complete full journeys while feeling safe increases cycling, particularly among women and older people who are otherwise less likely to cycle. Cycle lanes that are segregated from other traffic, painted and are given priority by lights at intersections boost real and perceived safety for both cyclists and pedestrians. These benefits are greater when initiatives are accompanied by traffic calming measures, such as reduced speed limits and raised crossings at intersections.

“Opposition to traffic policy changes is not unique to Ireland,” said Dr Shane Timmons, Senior Research Officer with the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “However, in multiple countries, research finds that people become more positive about changes once they are implemented. Open and fair consultations with communities to address concerns about traffic, local businesses and safety are helpful. Policy can benefit from more targeted research on how communities anticipate and respond to change.”

Joe Seymour, Head of Active Travel Investment at the National Transport Authority said:

“It can often be hard for communities to fully see the benefits of an active travel scheme before it is implemented. However, we have seen, time and time again, how people’s views can change once a project has been delivered and its positive impacts begin to be realised. Helping people see that, at the early stages of any project, is now a key focus for us in the NTA and our Local Authority partners.”

David Storey, Director of Environment, Climate, Active Travel and Sport at Fingal County Council said:

“There is a disconnect between public attitudes to climate action and public adoption of climate action initiatives. Mass modal shift to active travel is necessary to achieve meaningful climate action and we are already using this ESRI research to help us make design and communication choices that will close that gap between understanding and behaviour.”