Chris Boardman becomes the first commissioner of Active Travel England

Former cyclist will head up the new cycling and walking body, which is responsible for £5.5 million investment in active travel schemes

Chris Boardman in 2019
Chris Boardman in 2019
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Chris Boardman has been chosen as the first national commissioner for Active Travel England, the government’s new cycling and walking body.

The former Hour Record holder is to be in interim charge of the organisation, which launches today. It will be responsible for improving the standards of cycling and walking infrastructure and managing the national active travel budget, awarding funding for projects that improve both health and air quality.  

Boardman said that active travel can help in every situation. "Pick a crisis. We can help you with all of them. Health, climate crisis, pollution, segregation, levelling up. Pick one, and here's the evidence that says this is the right way to go."

Active Travel England will be building on the government's strategy for active travel, Gear Change, which was released last year. In that report, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, wrote: "This document aims to kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring."

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In 2020 Johnson officially launched the “cycling and walking revolution” with a £2 billion investment to be spent on thousands of miles of cycle lanes, cycling lessons for children and adults and plans to strengthen the Highway Code to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

On Saturday, £5.5 million in extra investment in cycling and walking has been announced, which includes a £300,000 top-up to E-cargo bike schemes, £3 million to improve cycling infrastructure around train stations, and £2.2 million to explore ‘active travel on prescription’ schemes. 

Boardman will be involved in the set up of the new body, including the recruitment of the chief executive and management team, while the Department for Transport conducts a search for a permanent commissioner.

In a press release, the former Olympian said: "The positive effects of high levels of cycling and walking are clearly visible in pockets around the country where people have been given easy and safe alternatives to driving. Perhaps most important of all, though, it makes for better places to live while helping both the NHS and our mission to decarbonise."

Speaking to Cycling Weekly, Boardman argued that the government's strategy was "a work of art". He continued: "It's so logical, it's so integrated with all other forms of transport. And it means when you're doing, and getting funding for, buses or city developments, you must incorporate active travel. That's fantastic stuff. 

"Setting up a new agency, an arms-length body is a big deal. It takes a bit of time, and at last it's on the way. The point of me coming in as interim is to just get that going, because there are lot of commitments and spending that need to happen before the agency even exists."

Active Travel England is to approve and inspect schemes, and will help local authorities, training staff and spreading good practice in design, implementation and public engagement. It is also to be a statutory consultee on major planning applications to ensure that the largest new developments properly cater for pedestrians and cyclist.

Boardman said: "We will set up our ability to act as a statutory consultee on all planning for anything over 150 houses. Anything that's built in the future must have active travel in it. It is amazing. I have been doing this for a very long time, and we've gone way past unprecedented. I think it's the biggest investment since the 1940s, which is sensational."

He also said that we need to "break the stereotype of what a cyclist is". 

"It's just people, doing normal things, in normal clothes, when they have a genuine attractive choice to not use a car," Boardman explained. "When you put it like that, people are with you. People don't want to have to give their kids a lift to school every day. 

"Hundreds of hours sat in a car, and you don't need to, and the only reason you do it is you don't feel safe enough to let them go under their own steam. Everybody is with you, if you make sure you use common knowledge."

Statistics from the Department for Transport show that while 45.7% more people were cycling in 2020 than 2019, the highest level since the 1960s, in 2019 people were using their cars for over 278 billion miles.

Boardman said: "There are 20 billion extra miles being driven around than there were just ten years ago. It's not sustainable, and it has taken away the right to do anything other than drive, and that's what we've got to unpick. 

"Things like social prescribing, that's really progressive policy. People aren't going to do it if they don't have safe space. It all comes together once you've made the safe space."

To move to his new position, he is stepping down as transport commissioner for Greater Manchester.

"I've changed my relationship with Manchester but it's still there," Boardman explained. "I effectively went on a very intensive four-year course and I'm incredibly grateful to Andy Burnham for that experience, and then I finished it off with a six-month masters by being transport commissioner. 

"I wouldn't be in a position to be able to get into this without my time in Manchester. This transcends politics, it's stuff we have to do."

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