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Never let a good crisis go to waste: enabling more walking and cycling in a post-Covid world

12 October 2020

While the global pandemic has brought much misery it also affords a unique opportunity to enable more active travel, writes Phil Jones CEng MICE, founder and chairman of transport and planning consultancy, PJA.

Never let a good crisis go to waste: enabling more walking and cycling in a post-Covid world
The Covid pandemic affords opportunity for more active travel (image credit: Shutterstock)

I was privileged to take part in an ICE Strategy Session on car free day (22 September) where a range of speakers explained how more walking and cycling could and should be enabled post-Covid. You can watch the whole debate again.

It’s clear to me that the pandemic is shaping up to be the most significant global event in my 60-odd years. I’m fortunate to have lived through a period that has mostly seen peace, at least in this country and, although there have been many changes, they have for the most part taken place at a pace that has allowed society – and the professions that serve it – to adjust.

But many of the changes brought about by Covid-19 are both profound and rapid, with the pandemic accelerating long-term trends like the shift towards home working – eliminating many commuting and business trips – and the further rise in online shopping. We have seen the Government try and fail to encourage a return to the office and I believe that these new travel patterns are likely to persist – they work too well. There will be many consequences of this change, positive and negative, foreseen and unforeseen, but I believe one will be an increase in demand for active travel, and the supply of the infrastructure needed to enable it.

'No one cycles around here'

As Sarah Storey, Active Travel Commissioner for South Yorkshire, said, a substantial proportion of journeys of up to 5km are made by motor vehicle. Many of these journeys could easily be made on foot or by cycle, with all the attendant health, congestion, air quality and road safety benefits. However, for most people, conditions are just not inviting enough to tempt them from the car, and too often actually present an environment hostile to active travel. Sadly the low number of people choosing to cycle has meant few people are calling for better infrastructure, so the view that, ‘no one cycles round here so why should we spend any money on it?’ has often been local politicians’ views. As we heard from Henriette Vamburg of Gehl Architects, cities like Copenhagen took the bold decision to prioritise walking and cycling in the 1980s; but the UK took a different road.

I hope that the large increases in active travel we saw across the UK when car traffic was suppressed has changed some mindsets. Even though traffic has recovered in many areas, particularly in London, overall congestion in major cities is still around 30% down –and more during peak hours. As a result, there remains scope to re-allocate road space to active travel without increasing congestion.

Reducing danger for pedestrians and cyclists

Government and the devolved administrations have commendably seized this opportunity. We’ve seen a consultation draft of the Highway Code aimed at reducing danger for pedestrians and cyclists; the launch of Gear Change, a new Government policy promising a £2bn fund (for England) for walking and cycling infrastructure and the establishment of Active Travel England, an Ofsted-like quango to enforce higher standards. Scotland and Wales have also committed increased funding, and the Welsh Parliament has decided to adopt 20mph as a default urban speed limit. The Department for Transport (DfT) has published strong emergency traffic management policies and £250m of funding for pop-up cycling and walking schemes. These include techniques such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, where motor vehicles are ‘filtered out’ of residential areas.

Local authorities have had to introduce such schemes very quickly to take advantage of reduced traffic levels and to meet the Government’s timetable. This has brought a strong reaction against the changes in some places from local residents and other groups. There are deeply-held views on both sides, but as Mary Creagh, Chief Executive of Living Streets, pointed out, there are inequality issues here, with many inner city areas being blighted with through-traffic even though people living there tend to own fewer cars. These issues are still being played out but for my part, I believe that most of the schemes will stay in place once people adjust their travel choices. We know from successful places like Waltham Forest that, although there is some redistribution of car traffic, there is a reduction overall as the balance tilts in favour of walking and cycling.

The challenge for developers and landowners

The changes in travel patterns we’ve seen since March have brought challenges for landowners and developers of offices and retail parks. Alan Bunting, Head of Development Delivery for British Land, explained how they will be adapting to a new landscape where employers will want to give much higher priority to people on foot and cycle, and design their sites accordingly.

More fundamentally however, we can expect to see far fewer people coming into city centres, moving towards dispersed travel patterns with people making more trips to local destinations. Susan Claris, Arup’s Global Champion for Active Transport, pointed out that the strong focus in the past on designing for car-based commuting into urban centres, fails to meet the needs of many people who make shorter trips for a range of purposes, and are strongly under-represented in cycling.

The need for inclusivity

The need for greater inclusivity is a fundamental aspect of the new Local Transport Note 1/20, which was published by DfT alongside Gear Change in July. This new guidance sets out how local authorities will need design for cycling whenever new highways or changes to existing ones are designed. If they fail to do so, Gear Change says they will be penalised through reduced funding – a powerful motivator.

Covid-19 has brought about many challenges, both personal and professional, and we are all having to cope with them. But, in the field of active travel, I believe we will increasingly see it is an opportunity to be grasped, to bring real and long-lasting improvements to people and the environment.

ICE Members who work in the highways field and who are not familiar with the subject urgently need to read and understand Local Transport Note 1/20 and begin to apply it in anticipation of this policy. It can be found, along with Gear Change, the Government’s policy statement.

  • , Chairman of Transport Consultancy, PJA