It is becoming clear that we can’t “go back to normal”. We are going to be living more locally and keeping physically distant from others for some time. On our streets we are seeing less traffic, more people on foot, scooters and bikes and long trailing queues for the shops. Rather than simply going back to “as things were”, we should be thinking urgently about what a future “as things will be” should look like.
Last week, I spent a couple of evenings on Zoom calls with clean air, road danger and walking campaigners talking about how to make social distancing work on our streets. I was struck by how many people spoke of their neighbours seeing their streets through new eyes, as calmer places for people of all ages to walk, scoot and cycle for their daily exercise or trip to the shops.
Campaigners have been making the public health case for traffic reduction and more space for walking for years. This would clean up our air, improve respiratory health, maintain physical well-being and cut the numbers of people killed and seriously injured. These points still hold strong, but there is now the added imperative of enabling safe, physical distancing.
In Highbury, where I live, we have got used to a new normal of patient and socially distanced queues outside the shops with people being served one by one from shop doorways. But as the days at home have passed, I’m aware of an increasing hum of traffic on the road outside and much more traffic and many more parked cars at my local shopping parade.
When the two metre gaps were first marked out by the council workers it was possible to step out into the road if you were walking past a queue for a shop and maintain a two metre distance. This is beginning to feel a bit risky as traffic volume and speeds have increased.
If the lockdown is eased and more people need to travel for work, they are unlikely to be keen to go back to the crowded public transport we used before the virus. In any case, social distancing will mean Tube capacity is massively reduced to less than a quarter of what it was. If even a fraction of those extra people get in their cars, we’ll see record breaking congestion, with deliveries and emergency services stuck in heavy traffic.
All the campaign organisations are coming up with good ideas. Living Streets tell us that walking is the simplest and most accessible exercise, many footways are too narrow, filtered streets and lower speeds are important and that we must find ways to be less car centric.
London Cycling Campaign agree with those points and are calling for temporary cycle lanes on main roads and public spaces and parks to be kept open to reduce the risks of crowding.
Some councils are starting to act, such as Brighton’s which moved quickly to open Madeira Drive as space for social distancing. In London, Lambeth has gone for an innovative borough-wide approach, with a single traffic order and phases planned to match the evolving challenges of social distancing.
Will Norman, Sadiq Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner, has indicated Transport for London will support councils to take action. We haven’t seen much from national government yet, short of a measure to simplify the requirements on councils to advertise changes.
Whether we’re at home for most of the day or required to travel for work, we will need Olympic levels of transport planning and journey reallocation. And we’ll need the right action from every level of government to bring in all these measures to change our streets, so that walking and cycling can provide a much-needed alternative to dirty air, traffic jams and overcrowded public transport at a time of social distancing.
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