In the latest in our ‘Coping with lockdown’ series of blogs, Transport Planning Officer Hannah Clark explains how lockdown has highlighted the need for suitable investment in road safety for cyclists and pedestrians.
As lockdown has brought significant, rapid change to travel patterns, transport planners have embraced the rare opportunity to embed seismic modal shifts away from private vehicle use.
Bikes were dusted down and taken for a spin, with the empty roads beckoning even the less confident on two wheels. Those not cycling took their daily exercise by exploring their local neighbourhoods by foot. I discovered beautiful viewpoints just minutes from my house where I could wistfully stare at the distant sea views during my lunch break; something I might never have had to opportunity to cherish pre-lockdown.
But with increased local mobility and the necessity for social distancing, came the stark realism that many neighbourhoods are car-dominant by design. Negotiating narrow pavements with significantly reduced car levels was easy if you were willing to walk in the road; but as traffic levels return towards normality, passing opportunities reduce. The once quiet roads filled with returning cyclists now highlight the need for suitable investment in adequate road space to protect the vulnerable road users. Lockdown trip patterns indicate that under the right conditions, cycling appeals to many more than those currently cycling regularly. There is clearly an untapped potential for modal shift, albeit under extreme conditions.
Building back greener
The Government's announcement of £250m for walking and cycling as part of the pandemic response should help embed sustainable travel habits formed during lockdown. Local Authorities welcomed the challenge to quickly develop rapid, pop-up infrastructure under the first tranche of the Emergency Active Travel Fund. The allocation of the second tranche of funding is, however, yet to be confirmed. As we approach shorter days and cooler, wetter weather will these tranche two permanent measures, envisioned to capitalise on the lockdown habits, have missed the narrow window of opportunity presented to the transport planning industry to not just build back better, but build back greener?
Reviewing government investment plans
There is still much uncertainty as to the longevity of the impacts the pandemic will have had on traveling patterns. Forecasting travel demand has always had an air of controversy; the very nature of predictions are that they are uncertain and yet multi-million pound infrastructure investments rely on business cases dependent on scenarios of specific future demand. Should travel patterns change unexpectedly, the economics supporting schemes could falter. If current disruptions to travel are proven to be temporary, this could be absorbed within a scheme’s full appraisal period and still represent value for money. But if the impacts could be long-lasting, current investment plans will need comprehensive reviews to evidence the merit in their continued support.
It would be reasonable to assume some of these travel changes will hold. Home working, for instance, has largely proven successful for those who are able to do so. Employers therefore stand to save on office space and overheads through supporting staff to adopt further home working. Increased home working will naturally lead to reduced commuting. Peaks may spread as journey purposes throughout the day alter to take into account adjusted lifestyles at home and work. Investment in digital accessibility will be crucial to supporting a reduction in physical business mobility.
The importance of data
Data will also be vital in understanding the current situation and informing future decisions. Volumes of traffic alone will not enable a full illustration of whether trends have truly recovered or changed. Trip purposes will indicate to what extent commuting and business travel have been altered, whilst trip distances will further point to wider changes in lifestyles. The traditional method of conducting road side interviews will likely be impossible during the pandemic. However, this presents an opportunity to explore and accelerate the usage and understanding of alternative data sources. As a result, we may see traditional methods challenged if innovations emerge as effective, robust and accessible.
As we go through continued uncertainty, the public will look to engineers to shape their communities. Cohesion at a local level feels more important than ever, which presents opportunities to engage positively with the users of our infrastructure networks.
The industry will need to be agile and responsive to the ever-changing situation to ensure there is the infrastructure to support whatever future 'new normals' may be.
Watch ICE President Rachel Skinner's inaugural address which was aired on the 03 November where she discussed the importance of carbon emission reduction and the need for urgent actions.