‘Car-led’ recovery increasingly apparent, Transport for London chief planner warns

‘Car-led’ recovery increasingly apparent, Transport for London chief planner warns

A “car-led” recovery in London is increasingly underway, with traffic on the capital’s main roads already back to 80 per cent of pre-lockdown levels. 

That was the warning from Transport for London Director of City Planning Alex Williams, speaking yesterday at the online launch of new polling on Londoners’ attitudes to travel and transport during and after lockdown for the Centre for London think tank.

The survey found that temporary measures spearheaded by City Hall and TfL to widen pavements and provide more space for cycling were backed by some two-thirds of Londoners, with six in 10 backing temporary road closures and removal of parking spaces, and 57 per cent also supporting more permanent provision for cyclists. 

But almost half of Londoners expected to use the Underground less than pre-lockdown, even if lockdown measures were completely removed, and between a quarter and a third of respondents expected to use their cars more – putting boroughs now planning bike and walking-friendly schemes in a race against time.

With London already the most congested city in Europe, the survey was a warning that Londoners could be as likely to return to their cars as to continue walking and cycling, said Centre for London strategic projects director Rob Whitehead. “Without bold thinking and innovation London could be heading for a new era of gridlock on our roads.”

“We’re conscious we are in a car-led recovery and that’s why we turned the congestion charge back on,” said Williams. “There are a lot more bikes out there – but a lot more cars as well.”

TfL’s Streetspace programme, which includes new a bike lane on Park Lane and wider plans for “one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world”, has already seen 15,000 square metres of road space reallocated to walking and cycling, Williams said, with £25 million of the government’s recently announced £250 million active travel fund available for borough schemes via TfL.

Williams’ concerns were echoed by Dipti Patel, Place Delivery director at Ealing Council and vice chair of the LEDNet London network of directors of environment, which supported the Centre for London survey. “Car use is a real concern,” she said. “The easiest option at the moment is getting in the car. We need to deter people from doing that, but it is a challenge.”

The current crisis was nevertheless an opportunity, and a “real time experiment” in demonstrating the benefits of sustainable travel, said Patricia Brown, director of the Central consultancy. “We’ve done overnight what we’ve been trying to do for 25 years. Bike lanes are opposed by people because they fear change. Hopefully it will now be an easier sell.”

Cycling needed to become “everyday”, she added, not driven by “cycling evangelicals” – a challenge with which TfL and the boroughs had been struggling. And planning needed to be multi-modal, not allowing one means of travel to dominate, adapting to different working and shopping hours, and with a neighbourhood focus.

While the future post-coronavirus was uncertain, it was clear, Williams concluded, that the revenue-led TfL business model was “broken”, with income plummeting and social distancing rules likely to keep Tube and bus capacity down by 80 per cent or so compared to pre-lockdown levels.

“A model based on fares and no subsidy doesn’t work,” he said. “We really do need government support to keep the show on the road. We have a six months deal but we will need more.”

Photograph: Omar Jan (taken before the Covid-19 outbreak).

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