22 May 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down, wreaking havoc on health and jobs. As a result, many of us are spending far more time at home – prompting traffic levels to drop, along with air pollution and carbon emissions. Restrictions on travel and movement mean roads are now being used more by walkers and cyclists.
But we need to keep it that way, and action is needed to ensure that councils re-prioritise the needs of pedestrians and cyclists on our roads as we start to come out of this dreadful situation.
Following media coverage of reduced air pollution and seemingly safer roads, there’s been increased awareness of the need to prevent roads becoming clogged up with traffic once lockdown is fully lifted.
What’s more, with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing on public transport (and worries some may have around that issue) those who can commute by car may opt to do so – potentially even increasing traffic on the roads compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
UK governments are therefore taking welcome steps to ensure more trips are made by walking and cycling, known as "active travel."
In England the government is requiring local authorities to take action, and in Wales and Northern Ireland governments are also actively supporting more active travel.
As campaigners, we therefore have an important responsibility to use this occasion and engage with local authorities and encourage them to take immediate action to boost active travel and permanently reduce deadly air pollution and prevent climate breakdown.
Active Travel in England
The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced a £250m emergency active travel fund, as part of a wider £2Bn package, to achieve a step-change in the roll-out of active travel measures, and says “fast-tracked statutory guidance... effective immediately, will tell councils to re-allocate road space for significantly increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians.”
The guidance is applicable to all highways authorities (organisations responsible for roads, which apart from motorways and trunk roads, are usually county councils or unitary authorities), and says that "measures should be taken as swiftly as possible, and in any event within weeks."
It also states that measures are not new, but rather form part of the existing toolkit, and can be introduced temporarily and (as well as vouchers for cycle repairs) include:
- Installing "pop-up" cycle facilities
- Using cones and barriers
- Encouraging walking and cycling to school
- Reducing speed limits
- Introducing pedestrian and cycle zones.
Given the current circumstances – and the possibility for positive changes to our transport use – we therefore encourage you to contact your relevant local authorities and urge them to use new powers and funding, as available, to make active travel a priority now.
We've prepared a model letter to help you. Make sure to send it to all your local councillors. For example, if you're in a two-tier system, send it to the two sets of councillors – those at the district level and those at the county level. This is because although district councillors don’t have direct responsibility for transport they do have a duty to safeguard their population.
Active Travel in Wales and Northern Ireland
The Welsh government has taken positive steps towards prioritising Active Travel, setting out in a statement that grant funding will be available and is requesting "expressions of interest to introduce temporary measures to improve the safety and conditions for sustainable and active travel modes."
In Northern Ireland, Stormont's Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, used a recent speech to lay out a vision saying she wants to "increase the space available for people who want to walk and cycle by extending pavements, pedestrianising streets and introducing pop up cycle lanes."
Opportunities for action
Some cities and local authorities are already taking action to encourage more walking and cycling. For instance:
- London is taking strong action with a Streetspace plan.
- City of London will ban cars on busiest roads.
- Manchester plans to spend £5m on pop-up cycleways and widened pavements.
- Birmingham has set out a whole emergency transport plan.
- York may be the first to establish a city centre just for pedestrians, cyclists and electric vehicle.
- Isle of Wight’s Key Worker Cycle Scheme offers long term loans for bikes and £50 vouchers for repair or essential accessories.
But not enough action is being taken, and many towns and cities aren't doing anything at all.
Yet there is great potential – as the UK government itself said "according to the National Travel Survey in 2017-18 over 40% of urban journeys were under 2 miles – perfectly suited to walking and cycling."
You can see what's missing in your area (and what to campaign on) by using Friends of the Earth’s climate-friendly postcode tool. It shows existing levels of walking, cycling and public transport in your area, how that compares with similar areas, what the potential is, and suggested targets to aim for.
Investment in active travel needs to be a key part of a post-coronavirus economic recovery plan, aimed at creating a clean, fair and sustainable future for all. More investment and action are needed on this issue, with segregated cycle paths and e-bikes both key factors in the future of urban travel, as research for Friends of the Earth found.
The measures the UK government outlined are promising, especially re-allocating road space for walking and cycling, and particularly encouraging children to use those modes to get to and from school (PDF).
But it’s also key, as government itself admits, to "restrict access for motor vehicles at certain times (or at all times) to specific streets, or networks of streets, particularly town centres and high streets." 20mph speed limits are really worth pushing for (and should arguably be the case on all built-up roads).
Safety for pedestrians and cyclists is critical however, and research for the RAC shows nearly half of people witnessing an increase in drivers breaking the speed limit during lockdown. Therefore, your local authority needs to be urged, in the measures they plan, to fully consider safety and call for any additional powers they need.
There’s sadly an apparent link between those worst affected by heavy air pollution and those more likely to suffer the worst health consequences of COVID19. For instance, common symptoms from inhalation of the toxic gas Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) (which is largely a road traffic problem) are "respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and cough" according to Kings College London, who say NO2 "inflames the lining of the lung and reduces immunity to lung infections."
For this opportunity to urge your local authority to take action you should find ready allies in any local contacts of partners of the Healthy Air Campaign, several of which are also part of the Walking and Cycling Alliance – as road transport is the key problem for illegal air pollution, as well as the transport sector being the biggest for climate emissions.1
Transport in the long term
There is a lot more that local authorities and national government can do in the longer term to make our transport system a sustainable, healthy system for all, including:
- Temporary measures on Active Travel need to be made permanent – as is already being proposed in some places
- The infrastructure we build must contribute, not work against, our climate objectives or Active Travel measures – in particular the governments planned £27bn roads programme (which dwarfs the £2bn for walking and cycling referred to) must be scrapped and funds redirected.2
- Traffic levels need to be cut – all vehicles produce the most dangerous fine Particle Matter air pollution from tyre and brake wear, and research for Friends of the Earth shows that car miles need to be cut by 20-60% by 2030 to meet our Paris climate targets – and the government should pursue a UK road-user-charging scheme or eco-driving levy.
- Clean Air Zones (CAZ) to restrict the dirtiest vehicles from the most polluted places are needed urgently around the country, and measures for London which have been suspended need to be brought back in as soon as possible, and strengthened. The government must bring forward the date they plan to end the sale of diesel and petrol cars and vans to 2030 – and they must make it easy for people to get rid of dirty vehicles by leading on a scrappage scheme (to include manufacturer funding) which would offer people not only clean cars but alternatives such as car-club membership or better still a rail season ticket or e-bike loan.
- The government must ensure the forthcoming Environment Bill includes binding commitments to World Health Organisation standards for fine Particle Matter air pollution (PM2.5), the UK’s standards on which are currently far too weak.
- 1Healthy Air Campaign partners: https://www.healthyair.org.uk/partners/ and Walking and Cycling Alliance: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/our-blog/news/2020/may/our-response-to-the-2-billion-package-to-boost-walking-and-cycling/
- 2Transport Action Network on the government’s Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) https://transportactionnetwork.org.uk/ris2-legal-action/