Quiet roads – a temporary blip before we jam them all up again?

Has anyone noticed more cyclists riding on the streets during lockdown? More children cycling with their parents? More adults giving it a go, previously too scared to venture out on the roads? Fewer cars and less congestion? This is echoed by the Government’s Coronavirus press briefings that show the staggering downwards curve of transport use changes since lockdown. The question is, will it last?

It’s encouraging to see so many people out and about enjoying their rides and gaining confidence on the roads. With two young children, we have made use of the quieter, safer roads, whether it’s taking the time to teach them some basic road sense, using empty car parks to do manoeuvres or treating the local golf course tracks as segregated cycle paths.

Our local golf course, which we’re using as a cycle path

Cities all over the world have closed roads to make space for cycling. Some councils, like Edinburgh, have opened up free bike hire schemes for key workers. The Scottish Government, recognising the new demand for cycling and walking, has even announced a new programme with Sustrans, the cycling charity, to build temporary infrastructure to give people more space.

There is evidence that more space is wanted by the public. Cycling Scotland published a survey earlier this year (before the lockdown) that looked at attitudes towards cycling. It revealed that people wanted to cycle more but concerns about road safety put them off. 63% of those polled agreed their local roads were too busy for safe cycling. 28% of parents thought cycling with children was ‘extremely unsafe’. And when asked what would make them cycle more, a staggering 81% named cycle lanes, traffic free routes and cycle paths.

A new wave of enthusiasm for greener travel?

I’m not sure that this apparent new wave of enthusiasm for cycling and walking will be sustained beyond the lockdown. Many people are cycling more precisely because they are locked down and don’t have other things to do, like shopping, travelling, or travelling to work.

However, I hope that when we come out of this, we will re-think how we share our road space – including taking some cars off it. Doing so would have clear benefits on public health, mental health and, given the massive footprint of transport on the environment, on emissions and climate change. Any momentum towards greener travel (and policies to encourage it) has to last longer than just the lockdown.

What I have learned is that if you make roads safer by giving more room (and yes, that means taking some cars off it), people will cycle and walk more. The opposite is also true – if you build fast, unsafe, roads and jam them full of cars, people won’t cycle on them.

Five challenges we face

However, there are some fundamental challenges that we (individuals, society, governments) will face as the lockdown eases.

First, there will be a massive demand to carry on as we were before, just to feel ‘normal’ again. Indeed, the ‘transport use’ curve in the Government Coronavirus briefings is already beginning to creep up again. Our brains (and economies) will also be in ‘catch up’ mode, tempting us to binge on all the things we missed since the lockdown started on 23 March. That means more cars on our roads.

Secondly, until we have a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, people will be wary about sharing space with others. A recent survey by Ipsos MORI said that 61% of Britons would feel uncomfortable using public transport once the lockdown eases. This means that those who used to take the bus or the train will probably choose the car instead. And car-sharing will probably not be so popular either. That means more cars on our roads.

Third, behaviour change in the transport sector has always been a really hard nut to crack. According to the Scottish Government’s Transport and Travel statistics for 2018, 66% of all journeys were made by car, 20% by foot and 8% by bus. These figures haven’t really changed massively over time. Going back to that Cycling Scotland survey, almost half (44%) said they were not interested in reducing the use of their car. If buses and trains reek of virus, or you can’t keep 2 metres between you and your fellow passengers, why take the risk? That means more cars on our roads.

Fourth, there is a massive risk that cars are seen as a ‘safe space’ from the virus. Indeed, the car industry is already polishing off its new marketing strategy as defenders against transmission of the virus. Clever. There is also a massive question mark over the future of public transport in general (in rural areas in particular), much of which can’t operate without subsidy. People might not have the choice of taking the bus instead of the car if there’s no bus left. That means more cars on our roads.

And fifth, if we want people to make different transport choices, we can’t rely on individual action alone – it needs concerted government policy (local and national), long-term vision, incentives, infrastructure and financial support. And some pressure from transport campaign groups like Transform or Cycling UK. Governments are totally overwhelmed by the work involved in dealing with and containing this virus, so there is neither the political appetite, energy nor money to do much else very complicated unless there is public demand for it.

I don’t want the nice quiet roads we are experiencing at the moment to be a temporary blip before everything just jams up again after lockdown.

I don’t want our transport emissions to rise and rise, and for people continue to feel roads are unsafe for cycling.

My last blog was about ensuring we do things differently after lockdown, and I really want transport to be the major thing we focus on. Maybe all this home-working might take off a few car journeys a week. Maybe we have all discovered that it’s not as far to walk to the supermarket as we once thought. Maybe we’re starting to enjoy a Saturday walk with the kids more than a drive to the soft play. Maybe we will think differently, make different choices.

Do you think our transport choices will change for the better after lockdown? Will we remember the days of quieter roads and safer streets for cycling? Will governments ensure that we try to green our transport infrastructure coming out of the lockdown?

What YOU can do

  • Try to replace one of your car journeys this week with a bike ride or a walk, and take the time to enjoy it.
  • Lobby your councillor, MSP and MP about greener travel, or support a greener transport campaign – it needs political action to really happen.

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