•The paper is based on documentary analysis of available official policy documents from UK government on active travel since 1996
•The findings reveal the largely rhetorical, advisory level of the vast majority of the policies, which contributes to a lack of overall success in promoting active travel•The lack of success is compounded further by a reliance on a wide network of local authorities to implement active travel policy, when most local authorities appear more concerned with transport issues related to motorised vehicles
•The findings reveal that active travel policy has becoming increasingly focussed on health gains that might be made from increasing the number of trips made by bicycle
•The overwhelming focus of the policy documents analysed, however, is on encouraging individuals to change their behaviour, a process regarded as ‘healthism’, and one most sociologists of health suggest is likely to fail as a result
•We conclude by suggesting that if the government is serious about wanting to see a ‘step change’ in the way in which people travel, particularly over shorter distances, then there is a need to have a more forceful approach to implementing policy within local authorities at the same time as making more substantial infrastructure changes to encourage cycling
There has been a succession of policy documents related to active travel published by the British government since the implementation of a National Cycle Network (NCN) in 1995. However, as the latest National Travel Survey (NTS) reveals, the number of journeys made by bike in the UK has remained steadfastly around only 2% (Department for Transport [DfT], 2018a). By using documentary analysis of the available official policy documents and statements, the aim of this paper is to make sense of the policies that have been published concerning active travel (AT) in England. This is done from a figurational sociological perspective. Three key themes emerge from the analysis: (1) the rhetorical, advisory level of the vast majority of the policies; (2) the reliance on a wide network of local authorities to implement AT policy; and (3) the focus placed on individuals to change their behaviour. Furthermore, the analysis reveals that despite a large number of policy publications from a range of government departments claiming to promote AT, little has actually changed in this time period in terms of a national agenda. Despite the successive policies, it seems there is little appetite on behalf of recent governments to make widespread infrastructural changes, where instead the focus has largely been on persuading the individual to seek more active modes of travel, increasingly for their own, individual ‘health’ gains.