Calls for more space for walking and cycling in UK during lockdown

Calls for more space for walking and cycling in UK during lockdown

Politicians and experts have called for urgent action to create more space for walking and cycling during lockdown in the UK, and to avoid a “nightmare” rise in traffic as restrictions on movement are lifted.

Many cities around the world are taking action to reallocate road space away from motor vehicles to provide safe routes for sustainable travel.

After the government’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty, suggested physical distancing may last for the rest of the year, Manchester announced plans to protect space for those on foot and cycles, but most UK councils have not yet taken any action.

Experts fear a return to heavily congested roads when the lockdown is lifted could be damaging, as it is thought air pollution is likely to exacerbate Covid-19 problems. Furthermore, a rise in extreme speeding during the lockdown, has led experts to suggest motor traffic could prove disproportionately lethal during the pandemic and urge authorities to make changes to city streets.

Ruth Cadbury, a Labour MP and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, said action was needed to avoid a “nightmare” on the roads as restrictions are lifted.

“I think people are going to rush back and to their cars where they would have gone to public transport, understandably fearing infection,” said Cadbury. “It won’t take long before our urban streets in particular, in our towns and city centres are more congested than ever, so we will end up with a nightmare situation.”

The World Health Organization says cycling and walking are among the best ways to practise physical distancing.

Cadbury said local authorities could allocate road space for walking and cycling via temporary or emergency traffic orders, bringing forward existing plans or targeting key commuter routes, including to hospitals. She said guidance from government would help.

The government recently announced a minor relaxation of traffic regulation orders (TRO) allowing local authorities to close roads without the need to advertise measures in local media. However, Dr Rachel Aldred, at the University of Westminster, said councils had little experience of TROs and some fear legal challenges if they try to make such changes.

She said: “The Department for Transport could help firstly by unambiguously stating that it expects and will support authorities to lock in traffic reduction and create conditions for safe walking and cycling, and simplifying the process through which they can install temporary changes.”

The shadow green transport minister, Kerry McCarthy, said government could provide a “steer” to local councils. She said: “Do they want to go back to business as usual or do they want to use this as an opportunity to meet the goals we have got on air pollution, increasing active travel for people’s health while decreasing road transport and tackling congestion?”

“If we don’t seize this moment, the moment will be lost if we return to normal,” she said.

Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman, said local authorities can do more.

“We have just weeks to act or face higher car use than ever as people avoid public transport,” he said. “Many cities around the world have seen the same threat and are putting in emergency measures to make sure people have a viable alternative to driving. UK cities have to make a call right now if they want to avoid gridlock and even higher pollution.

“In anticipation of a prolonged recovery period, several Greater Manchester boroughs are now busy planning measures to ensure sufficient space is available for people to walk and ride.”

DS Andy Cox, vision zero lead for the Metropolitan police, said he was “very concerned” about extreme speeding; while deaths and serious injuries overall are down, those relating to speed are not.

With road traffic 50-60% lower in the capital, average speeds have increased in all speed zones. Some roads are seeing average speeds 50% higher than normal, Cox said.

“There is a very significant risk at the moment, because of the high speeds we are seeing,” he said. “In the long term we would expect speeding to remain a critical focus because lower traffic volumes create an environment where more people can speed.”

Cox said the UK legal system should recognise the devastation speeding can cause, including death and lifelong disability.

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK head of campaigns, said pop-up walking and cycling space, as Milan is planning, could relieve pressure on public transport and help people maintain social distancing. More than 3,000 people have written to their councils calling for such measures since Thursday.

“When lockdown is relaxed, people will need more space to keep safe so it’s essential councils introduce measures to make cycling and walking safer and social distancing easier right now in preparation for this time,” he said.

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Chris Heaton-Harris, the cycling minister, said cycling and walking were good ways for people “to get active and help their mental and physical health”.

“To help encourage more cycling and walking, DfT issued guidance to make it easier for local authorities to make changes under traffic regulation orders,” he said.

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