As a professional who often deals in cold hard numbers, it is important to stop and consider the human side of any tragedy and I thought it was important to start this post with such an acknowledgment and to pay tribute to everyone involved in caring for people and keeping things going for us.

With any crisis, there will the immediate need for tactical approaches in dealing with people’s immediate situation, to preserve life and to think about the next steps to be taken. There is also a need for strategic thinking because at some point, the immediate crisis recedes and we move to a recovery phase. With the Coronavirus, the recovery phase is going to take a long time and in fact, we may never be the same again.

From a streets and transport management point of view it’s no different. We’ve seen public transport locked down, people’s freedom to move heavily curtailed and key-workers (in the widest sense) being given priority for transport as a tactical response. We are still able to leave our homes for some exercise and for necessary tasks such as obtaining food and medicine, but providing people with safe space to do so has become challenging. The tactics of the situation are gradually adjusting as new information becomes available, but so far four things are evident to me:

  • the astonishing amount of public space given over to the movement and storage of motor vehicles;
  • how little space is given over to walking and cycling, a fact thrown into sharp relief by the need for physical distancing when we do go out for exercise or to the shops;
  • how utterly lawless the streets have become with the way in which many people are choosing to drive, especially where speeding is concerned; and
  • how difficult it is for local authorities to react quickly to implement urgent changes to our streets.

The worrying thing as well is that there are people getting out and about on foot and bicycle, maybe for the first time in years. These people are being exposed to more risk than might normally be the case (and it was a ‘normal’ which was unacceptable anyway), and it won’t take much to chase them away.

Our current tactics are looking variable to say the least; the lawless driving is something the police have to get on top of and in some parts of the country there is great targeted work going on in this respect. We also know that under normal circumstances, resources are stretched and enforcement alone is not an answer, so we need changes to our streets to give people more space to travel actively and to physically restrict the bad driver behaviour. On this point, our highway legislation has been found to be wanting in reacting to the public health emergency – had the virus been an act of terrorism, then barriers and road closures would have gone up overnight.

The legal points of highway management have been discussed widely in recent weeks, but the legislation for temporary changes does not specifically allow for a crisis of this kind. The Government could potentially assist local authorities wanting to use temporary layouts with confirmation that giving people space and protecting them from traffic is indeed possible because of a “likelihood of danger to the public” (Section 14(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 if you’re interested in the detail). Beyond that, there is legislation to allow experimental changes to streets which for my mind is the best way forward. We also have lots of powers in Part V of the Highways Act 1980 to allow footways to be widened, cycle tracks to be provided and driving space squeezed – none of this needs traffic orders or permanent materials, we can come back and tidy things up later.

There is definitely a gap in the law between the speed we want to make changes and our ability to do so, but this won’t be changed quickly or at all by the Government and this contrasts with cities all over the world which are rolling out changes leaving the UK behind as usual. However, let’s work with what we have now and argue about change later – the best time for a local authority to roll out tactical plans was six weeks ago, the second best time is today!

This brings me back to strategic thinking. There are a few UK local authorities diligently working behind the scenes to develop projects to protect people – we have seen a few things happen already. However, there needs to be long term planning on what will happen and indeed what we want to happen in the weeks and months ahead. We are going to be restricted in public transport capacity, some people will want to take to their cars for physical distancing and some people will continue to walk and cycle. One good thing from this whole crisis could be that we may actually decide to make changes to the way we operate our streets and how we prioritise access to local shops and services.

As a longer term strategy, I’d like to see local authorities realising that walking and cycling is a resilient and cost-effective way to enable people to make local trips and that it’s good for wider communities including their shops and services. I would like to see capital funding used for the repurposing of local roads and streets; and indeed, making this a duty for local authorities may focus the minds of councillors adverse to changing the status quo. I would also like to see a commitment from the Government to review highways legislation to allow temporary layouts to be rapidly rolled out in response to a declared emergency.

The future is an undiscovered country and we’ve been given a very painful opportunity to think again where we might be going. I really hope we can use this enforced pause to think wisely about our trajectory and rediscover what is actually important to us.

1401 Mark

Mark Philpotts

Mark is a Chartered civil engineer who specialises in designing for walking and cycling as a technical manager with Sweco.