As we could probably have predicted, since lockdown there are far fewer cars on the roads. We’ve been taking our bikes out for exercise and I’ve felt completely confident riding around London with a 3 year old on the back of my bike (while 7 months pregnant!), whereas I would usually be concerned by the combination of heavy traffic and air pollution. As those of us living in London (and elsewhere) are very well aware, our air quality is terrible and responsible for huge numbers of premature deaths each year. Amazingly, air quality on Oxford Street, one of London’s most polluted, has been measured to be as clean as in rural Hampshire during lockdown.
Last year, I co-hosted a workshop on reimagining our cities through the Sustainability Network. We discussed how we often don’t question the enormous percentage of our streets that are given over to cars and how much space they take up. It’s great to see our attitudes to roads being rapidly shifted during lockdown – more people are out cycling confidently and pedestrians also feel that they can also use the roads – we have started to reclaim the tarmac which is usually dominated by polluting vehicles. Lockdown is demonstrating to us how much of our travel is unnecessary. It is also showing us how much more appealing alternative forms of transport – cyling, e-bikes, e-scooters – are when there are fewer vehicles on the roads. Might we not be able to look at ways to maintain this balance as lockdown restrictions are lifted?
Changes are already underway in some cities. Milan has committed to reallocating 35km of roadspace to pedestrians and cyclists before the end of the Summer. Other cities are putting in emergency temporary measures, recognising that public transport systems are unable to function effectively while allowing social distancing. In Paris, for example, there are temporary cycle lanes being put up across the city. One of the huge frustrations in recent years has been the slow pace of change; adding a new cycle lane in London seems to require years of consultations before construction can even begin. Yet, this crisis has forced governments to act quickly. As we start to ease lockdown restrictions, a return to normal traffic on trains and buses is fairly incompatible with the inevitable social distancing measures that will need to remain. Ensuring that this doesn’t lead to a huge rise in car traffic should be an absolute top priority. Setting aside the environmental and health benefits of keeping cars off the road, cars are not affordable for everyone and will only continue to widen social inequality. So along with the infrastructure, temporary or permanent, that should be put into place, why not look at ways to help make greener forms of transport – bicycles, cargo bikes, (electric) scooters – accessible to all? As the government chooses where to spend money on a recovery, investment in cleaner forms of transport seems like a win-win situation.