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Travelling in the right direction

Tuesday 8 October 2019

The Hope Valley Explorer busBy Andrew McCloy - Chair of the Peak District National Park Authority

For a national park designated for its stunning landscape and natural beauty, one of the Peak District's most pressing but intractable issues is actually around people. Our highly accessible location at the heart of the nation means that an estimated 20 million people live within one hour’s journey of the national park; and the vast majority of visitors arrive by car. This can lead to busy roads and parking problems at honeypot sites, as well as impacting on the rural tranquility; but the more serious long-term problem is the contribution these millions of vehicles makes towards climate change.

Road transport accounts for over 14% of carbon emissions in the Peak District, a figure that is in danger of rising as private car ownership increases and rural public transport networks diminish. The Peak District's location so close to large urban centres makes it especially attractive for short day visits by car, as well as significant through-movements by commuter and commercial traffic. Ever more busy roads discourages cycling, and so the problem perpetuates.

There is no easy solution to this conundrum and certainly not for the national park authority, for whom transport delivery and strategic transport planning is not a statutory function. But we have a responsibility for landscape protection and encouraging sustainable visits, as well as a duty towards the welfare of the local community. So what can be done?

More public charging points for electric vehicles are planned for locations across the Peak District, but problems with remoteness, capacity and power supply have hampered their roll-out. The contribution in terms of air pollution and emissions will be positive, of course; but non-car owners will still be discriminated against and it will do nothing to reduce the actual number of vehicles on the Peak District's roads and in the car parks.

A much better option is to take the 'active travel' approach and encourage visitors to come here by public transport instead, or at the very least immediately switch to cycling and walking options when they arrive. There are a number of underlying issues that need addressing to make this happen, including the basic need to understand where visitors want to go and why, and then designing the right transport infrastructure to meet those needs. It will need to be funded and marketed properly, with coordination and delivery between many different partners (both public and private sector, from commercial operators to community transport). A fully integrated public transport network, where train, bus and bike come together, would benefit visitors and residents alike, but current political and financial uncertainties make this a real challenge.  

We know that it's difficult to try and change people's long-established patterns of behaviour, especially when it comes to their personal attachment to the motor car; but we also know that it is essential to make this transition if we are to tackle climate change - which we must - and develop a more responsible approach to leisure visits.

We're already putting in place the first parts of the jigsaw. Over the last few years we've developed a network of traffic-free walking and cycling trails, such as the Monsal Trail, to encourage healthy and sustainable travel in and around the national park; and we want to extend this by completing the so-called White Peak Loop. But the national park is still not as cycle-friendly as it should be, certainly not compared to the situation in other countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

This summer we also piloted the Hope Valley Explorer bus service, encouraging visitors to use public transport in one of the most popular locations of the national park, and we will repeat it over the next two years. But there is still some way to go to realise a joined-up and more sophisticated approach to public transport that includes the likes of through ticketing, slicker promotion and smarter timetabling.

However,  can we and should we go further? Park and ride options at our gateway locations? Or congestion charges at the honeypot sites at peak times? An independent report (the Landscapes Review) published last month called on Government to support a new approach to coordinating public transport and more sustainable ways of accessing protected landscapes like national parks. We wholeheartedly support this and hope that the Peak District can be in the vanguard of taking this forwards.

There will always be visits to the national park by car, of course, and we cannot and should not say 'no' to private car visits at all costs. Instead, we need to work with the tourism sector to look at ways to limit car usage and make other options more attractive. Car-free travel in a popular national park like the Peak District should be made easier and accessible to all. Millions of visits by car is simply not sustainable in the long run and we must find a different approach if we are to cut carbon emissions and protect this fragile environment. It needs a bold approach of ambition and action across many different authorities - and we at the national park authority are certainly up for it. But ultimately it requires everyone, including our millions of visitors, to make informed and responsible  choices and ensure that we conserve this precious landscape for future generations.

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