AS the fastest growing town in the east of England, Colchester is in the midst of an air pollution and congestion crisis.

Most recent figures, from 2019, show the town sits amongst the 100 most polluted areas in the country.

Campaigners have long been calling for change and a shift away from car-focused neighbourhoods and town centres.

This change has been accelerated by the arrival of coronavirus and Essex County Council is set to spend a share of £7 million of the Government’s Active Travel Fund cash in Colchester on a raft of improvements to boost walking and cycling.

Plans include creating two new large cycle routes, linking the town north to south and west to east, setting up “school streets” with restrictions on traffic and lowering the speed limit in in many parts of the town.


Changes will see modal filters, segregated cycle-lanes, bus gates and new crossings installed across much of the town centre.

Plans have already faced resistance, however, and there are areas where similar schemes already appear to be making a difference.

Cycling UK, the country’s biggest campaign group for cycling, singles out Leicester as a shining example of where cycling infrastructure can change the car-focused narrative of travel.

Since 2012, Leicester City Council says it has invested more than £70 million in creating cycle-friendly streets, public transport hubs and cycle routes along main roads.

Another £80 million of improvements are planned with the latest e-bike sharing scheme in the UK also launching.


Figures appear to show this investment is paying off. In 2019 Leicester City Council’s annual survey showed more than 18,000 daily cycling trips were taking place past monitoring points in the city.

The number of cyclists recorded at 14 key sites in the city showed a huge 45 per cent jump in cyclists in May 2020 compared to May 2019 as people looked for alternative ways to travel due to the lockdown.

Look back further and the increase in cycling is even clearer. One street in the city, London Road, saw cyclist numbers jump from about 300 in November 2016, before a segregated cycleway scheme was created, to 850 in April 2021 - an increase of 280 per cent.

As of the end of December the city had 235km of cycle facilities, with more than 100km of this segregated from traffic.

Leicester’s deputy city mayor for transport and environment Adam Clarke said: “Cycling and walking help us to improve our environment and combat air pollution, as well as benefitting health, wellbeing and the economy. That’s why we’re committed to making it as easy as possible for people to make these choices.

“We’re proud of the work we’ve done in Leicester to promote active travel, and our figures show that more people are choosing to walk or cycle around the city.”

“We used our forward-thinking approach to transport infrastructure to rise to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, and we will continue to think innovatively to help tackle the ongoing climate emergency, improving our city for everyone who lives, works or visits here.”

The focus on creating segregated cycle lanes which has been key to Leicester’s success is a key part of the changes planned in Colchester.


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London has also seen a huge influx of cycling infrastructure in response to the pandemic.

Lambeth Council created the Railton Low Traffic Neighbourhood due to strain the pandemic put on the area’s transport network.

Monitoring reports from the Low Traffic Neighbourhood, which limits which traffic can enter the area, show the changes seem to be making a difference.

Figures from March show overall car journeys in Railton Road dropped by more than 75 per cent, with bike journeys increasing by a similar percentage.

Across the whole of the Low Traffic Neighbourhood, car journeys decreased 58 per cent, HGV journeys 48 per cent and bike journeys increased 51 per cent.

Of course, no two places are exactly the same and there are differences between Colchester and both Lambeth or Leicester.

Colchester is considerably smaller than each and both areas have also seen significantly higher shares of investment. But both are also likely to see higher levels of pollution than Colchester.

Data from both areas shows if you introduce cycling infrastructure, people will use it.


Will Bramhill, vice-secretary of Colchester Cycling Campaign, said: “In the past highways officials used to say ‘Show us a good example of cycling infrastructure in the UK’. We couldn’t, and said: ‘but in the Netherlands’.

“At this point they shut us up and said it had to be the UK, with the result that we never got anywhere.

“This reluctance to learn from elsewhere was baffling on so many counts, not least the cost to the public purse. While the £70 million spent in Leicester sounds a lot, it stands in contrast to the UK’s £29 billion trunk roads programme and the hundreds of millions more spent annually at local level.

“Walking and cycling schemes achieve more for less. If you run a cost benefit analysis, every pound spent on active travel returns nearly £5, mostly through health gains.

“Every time someone chooses to cycle for a journey rather than drive, society saves about £1.50 a mile.

“Data shows at long last Britain is making progress - we have bright spots where active travel is working, where people are being encouraged to live healthier lives free from the intimidation posed by even the most careful driver.

“We hope now councils will learn from these schemes, giving the UK the momentum we have lacked for so long.”

The consultation into the changes planned for Colchester has now closed. Essex Highways will now work on drawing up the final schemes for implementation.

Essex County Council’s highways boss Lee Scott said: “Colchester - Britain’s oldest town with narrow roads – struggles with the number of cars on the road. It also already experiences some of the worst air pollution in the county with 12 locations exceeding the legal limit. We have to invest in carbon zero options.

“Reducing car use makes us all physically and mentally healthier and reduces the risks from pollution and reduces congestion on the roads.

“Cycle use encourages more people to move out of cars and use active travel, which is better for our towns and cities as it leads to less congestion, better for the NHS as people get fitter through active travel and better for the environment as less pollution is released on their daily journey.

“More and safer, segregated cycle lanes are there to encourage, over time, more people to try cycling for shorter journeys.

“We know that many people who would like to ride their bike in town don’t do so now because they fear for their or their children’s safety mixing with motor vehicles on the road.”

“As Government and councils work to get more people cycling with better facilities, cycleway works are being prioritised.”