Transport revolution: Creating change through combating crises
Covid-19 hit at a time when we were already facing a triple threat of crises:
- a physical inactivity epidemic which costs the NHS over £1 billion a year;
- air pollution, killing 28,000-36,000 people prematurely a year in the UK and killing more people than cigarettes globally; and
- the biggest crisis of all – climate change.
All of these crises are due, in a large way, to the impact of cars. The car has dictated the way we design our towns and cities for years, taking space away from people. Particles from motor fuels, tyres and brakes also pollute our air and our climate.
When Covid-19 led to lockdown, rates of car and air travel immediately dropped, with car use reaching 1955 levels. Many people have reported feeling safer on the streets due to less traffic, and have started walking and cycling more often, resulting in better air quality in many parts of the country.
Covid-19 remains devastating, but in trying to stop its spread and protect ourselves, we also began to tackle these other crises caused by the car.
How do we continue to recover from Covid-19 as lockdown measures ease without simultaneously perpetuating the other crises?
The simple answer is we must reduce the number of trips made by car in the long term. However, the policy and planning changes needed to achieve this require leadership, ambition and agility.
The UK Government has awarded £250 million to local authorities for measures to help people maintain social distancing by taking space away from cars and giving more space to people. These include pavement widening, pop-up cycle and bus lanes, and closing streets outside schools to motor vehicles at drop-off and pick-up times. Sustrans’ ‘Space to Move’ tool lets people give feedback on road space re-allocation measures in their area. We hope this will give many local authorities the confidence to make these measures permanent.
The £250 million is part of £2 billion confirmed for walking and cycling by the Government between now and 2025. This is a step in the right direction to help more local authorities build the capacity to roll out widespread walking and cycling schemes. The combination of recovery from Covid-19; the upcoming COP26 Climate Conference in 2021; and the promise of a ‘Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy 2’ (CWIS2) creates a unique opportunity for UK Government to lead a change in the way we build and move around our towns and cities.
To really create change, the following things need to be included in CWIS2:
- Stronger targets for 2025: A target for walking of at least 365 stages per person per year is needed. We also need to work at reducing inequalities in active travel, which more targeted work- and community-based cycle training and route awareness would help to achieve.
- Reduce speed, increase space: CWIS2 should ban pavement parking in England outside of London, and all residential streets should have default 20mph to reduce danger from speeding.
- Support all local authorities to produce and deliver Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans: Currently only some local authorities have produced these in England and all local authorities should be supported to produce and put in place measures to increase cycling and walking by 2025.
- Provide long-term funding akin to the roads budget: Once local authorities have built up capacity over the next year, a ramping up of funding to between £6 and £8 billion by 2025 is necessary to create real long-term change.
Finally, CWIS2 must be fully integrated with the upcoming planning white paper which should include a 20-minute neighbourhood planning principle along with air quality and physical activity targets.
Vitally, we need to not just look at short journeys if we want to tackle climate change. Increasing cycling does not, by itself, decrease carbon. In the Netherlands, where 27% of trips are cycled (compared with 2% in the UK) , they still have higher carbon monoxide emissions than the UK.
The upcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan must be fully integrated with CWIS2 and must tackle medium-length journeys (5-20 miles). We need e-bike hire schemes in suburbs and rural areas not just the obvious city centres. A mass push of e-bikes here could open up travelling longer journeys by cycle. Cycling and walking must also be fully integrated into clean public transport.Instead of funnelling vast sums into road building programmes, let’s focus on road maintenance and supporting networks of cycling, walking and public transport routes.
As we recover from Covid-19 we must strive to create permanent change in the way we move around; improve our towns and cities, and tackle all the crises we face.