Active travel

Walking and cycling as a means of transport are collectively known as ‘active travel’.

Walking is the most sustainable form of transport and accounts for around a quarter of journeys in Scotland.

Yet there’s the potential for this proportion to be much higher. 

The issue
Transport accounts for 37% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions but the climate emergency means this needs to reduce dramatically.

For decades, Scotland’s transport planning has focused primarily on the needs of motor vehicles, with the result that walking or cycling in both towns and rural areas can be dangerous, unpleasant and difficult.

But for the sake of our health, our environment and our communities it’s important to rebalance our transport use and make active travel the easiest option for shorter trips.

We’ve been working for many years with other organisations to call for more investment in active travel. In 2018 over half of all journeys made in Scotland were under 5km, with the median trip by car or van at 6.8km.

Many of these trips could be done on foot or by bike, but for people to choose these modes there must be safe infrastructure and clear information so people know their options. 

Scientists predict that we have a decade to make transformative change and respond to the climate emergency.

We recognise that there is already progress towards increasing levels of walking and cycling but this is too slow.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that people are able to make massive adjustments to their way of life if they see clear personal and societal benefits, and that they respond to government requests which are based on evidence and national need.

These factors suggest that there is an opportunity to make more permanent fundamental changes to the way we live our lives in the future due to the climate crisis, with the likelihood that these will be understood and accepted as necessary by a large proportion of the population.  


Shifting to walking or cycling for a greater proportion of short journeys would bring huge benefits to the environment, our health and our quality of life.

Air pollution, mainly caused by vehicle emissions, is becoming recognised as a major health concern in our cities.

Congestion also has a cost to our economy and this won’t be improved simply by switching to electric vehicles.

In addition, Scotland’s levels of physical activity are low, leading to higher risk factors for a range of diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

Yet with half of all vehicle journeys in Scotland are under 5km, we believe that many of these trips could easily be made on foot or by bike.

This would help to integrate physical activity into everyday life, bringing benefits for all.

However, despite strong government policy to encourage a shift towards more walking and cycling, investment in active travel is still around 3% of the overall transport budget. This is hampering the rate of change.

Our position

We have long supported a call from the Association of Directors of Public Health for 10% of transport budgets at national and local levels to be spent on walking and cycling.

We now believe that the climate emergency demands that we need to be aiming much higher, with an objective of building up to around 20% of transport budgets to be invested in active travel.

This would lead to huge improvements in our towns, cities and rural areas, providing safe and pleasant paths for people to use, making sure that walking and cycling are promoted, and helping everyone to choose walking or cycling as the easiest, quickest option for most short trips.

To make these changes, leadership and long term funding are key requirements.  

Government action
The Scottish government has good policies which encourage more walking and cycling, such as the Cycling Action Plan for Scotland and National Walking Strategy.

Long term, guaranteed funding for active travel is required along with strong leadership, to enable planning and investment to really make a difference and change behaviour.

While we recognise that government budgets are tight, we would like to see a reprioritisation of transport spending to support more walking and cycling.

Electric bikes (e-bikes) are power-assisted bicycles which are limited by law to 15.5mph.

They are enjoying an exponential growth in sales, both for commuters and for those wanting to explore the countryside on e-mountain bikes.

There are many benefits to e-bikes as there is evidence that they can lead to car drivers swapping to cycle to work and they also help those who are less physically-able to extend their active years or take up cycling as a new activity. 

However there are also concerns that e-bikes encourage people to cycle further on rough terrain which may cause damage to fragile habitats.

E-bikes have been discussed at the National Access Forum, of which Ramblers Scotland is a member. 

The current position is that they should not be classed as motorised vehicles for the purposes of Scotland’s access legislation, and therefore, as long as they are ridden responsibly, they have the same status as any other bicycle.

Note that this approach has not been tested in court.

Electric scooters (e-scooters) are becoming a more common sight in Scottish towns and cities. 

Since July 2020, the Department for Transport has allowed rented e-scooters to be used legally on our roads, for purposes of carrying out a year-long trial to assess their impact. 

Users must be over 16 and hold a provisional car, motorbike or moped licence.

Private scooters are still illegal on roads, pavements or paths in Scotland and the speed limit is set at 15.5mph.

We have concerns about the use of e-scooters on roads given the poor state of our road infrastructure with many potholes which could be dangerous for the scooter users.

However, given that they are motorised vehicles they should not be allowed on pavements.

Nor should they be used on paths used by walkers, cyclists and horseriders as they do not comply with the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

Policy briefings

Page last updated September 2020