Steve Rotheram: Why funding for walking and cycling is as vital to the north as rail investment

Steve Rotheram. Image: Getty.

The Labour Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region writes.

Underinvestment in the North’s transport infrastructure has acted as a brake on our economy and a drag on our living standards for too many years.

As Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region I’ve been pushing central government for more investment in the rail network across the north, but also to devolve decision making around how we use that funding.

But I believe that active travel – walking and cycling – could be just as vital for the development of the Liverpool City Region, and the North more broadly. And it’s something we don’t have to wait for Westminster to step up and deliver.

Right now, two thirds of all journeys across the six boroughs of the Liverpool City Region are three miles or less, but half of these are still taken by car. If more of these trips were taken by bike or on foot it would massively benefit the region and the people who live here.

To achieve this we’re talking about nothing short of a revolution in the way people travel. We need to raise the profile and prominence of active travel so that it is natural a choice as hopping on a bus or taking the train. Cities like Copenhagen and Taipei have taken this approach and it has yielded huge benefits for their citizens.

It would have a positive impact on our air quality and help to cut carbon emissions. Earlier this year we became the first city region outside London to declare a climate emergency and the first to set a target to become zero carbon by 2040. As it stands, more than 700 people here die each year as a result of air pollution. We need to bring this to a stop and encouraging people to ditch their cars will be part of the solution.

Greater numbers of people travelling on bike and foot will also help improve public health. Research shows that regular walking and cycling cuts people’s risk of cardiovascular conditions like heart disease and stroke by a third.

And more active travel will grow our economy. High quality walkways and cycle paths have been shown to boost retail spend by 30 per cent, which will help badly hit high streets and town centres.

That’s why, over the next ten years and beyond, we’ll be building a network of 600km of new and upgraded walking and cycling routes linking all six boroughs of the city region – Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and the Wirral.

These routes will not only be safe and easy to use, but – as part of my plans to deliver an integrated London-style transport network – will also be linked to our buses, our iconic Mersey Ferries and our brand new publically-owned metro trains, which will begin running in our city region from next year.

Some £16m of funding for seven initial routes – about 50km in total – has already been committed and the first spade will go in the ground on these projects in the next few months, but to really kick-start a revolution in the way people travel we need to go beyond building infrastructure.

We need a cultural shift, so that people think about walking and cycling as a genuine alternative to the car. That’s why we’re introducing schemes to help people to travel by bike or foot, regardless of their background.

In the Liverpool City Region, we’ve piloted, backed and funded a host of schemes designed to make active travel easier, safer and more accessible to residents. These include training thousands of school pupils in cycle safety, supporting hundreds of co-workers to commute together on foot and providing free bikes to newly employed people to ensure that access to help ensure that access to transport doesn’t impact someone’s potential to keep their new job.

When it comes to active travel, I know our neighbours across the North are also strongly committed to building infrastructure and changing behaviour. Transport for the North is incorporating walking and cycling measures into new highways development, whilst Greater Manchester is putting their own walking and cycling strategy in place.

So while I will never give up calling for the government to redress the historic imbalance around investment in our rail network, in the Liverpool City Region we lead rather than follow. It’s time for a revolution in the way we travel, and it starts here.

Steve Rotheram is the Labour Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.