Your say / Transport

‘We need to make the changes we’d like to keep after lockdown’

By jon usher, Tuesday Apr 21, 2020

A lot has been written already about some of the benefits that we’re seeing as a result of our Covid-19 lockdown.

Traffic volume is at levels not seen since 1955. Our air is cleaner. More people are walking and cycling as part of their permitted daily exercise routines. And working at home has become ubiquitous.

This has led to commentators in some quarters suggesting that we might see a ‘new normal’ as we come out of lockdown.

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There are benefits to our health, to communities, even wildlife. It’s just a shame that society as a whole isn’t able to experience them all while we #StayAtHome.

I’m a bit more cautious, and think it would be folly to assume that anything other than the old normal will resume, unless we successfully make the case for the changes we’d like to keep.

The perceptions on the drivers of our economy are such that initiating any form of change will take coordinated action from civil society and business working in partnership to demonstrate to governments at local and national levels that we’d like things to change permanently.

We’ve already seen a delay to the completion of Bristol’s clean air zone and diesel ban on the basis that businesses will need the freedom of the city to recover.

And while the city council is investigating ways to implement temporary changes to road layouts to enable physical distancing, others, like Brighton are stealing a march and doing it. Hackney is looking at ways to permanently remove through traffic from residential streets.

The Government has even relaxed the rules to enable councils at this time of crisis to implement temporary changes to widen pavements on high streets or close some roads to provide more spaces for people to be physically active, but stay safe in the process.

Berlin was the first European city not only to temporarily widen cycle lanes to ensure key workers could still get around, but to also write a manual on how they should be implemented. Countless others have followed suit.

Such a proactive approach is what is needed. We need measures to ensure the healthiest forms of transport are both an immediate option for everyone needing to move around the city during lockdown, and continue to be a very real option in the medium and long term.

With 20 per cent of all trips to work in the West of England under 2km already made by car, we have got to think about how we enable a shift to more sustainable forms of transport.

And in the medium term, it might be that public transport isn’t the answer. Evidence from China shows an explosion of single occupancy car trips as their lockdown is lifted, as people seek to avoid packed trains and buses.

It would be a disaster if this trend were to be repeated in Bristol, even more so if the only reason we didn’t act was that we were focused on an old normal economic recovery.

We need to recognise and act on a desire to do the opposite.

Only nine per cent of people surveyed by the RSA wanted things to return to normal after lockdown. So what might we do differently? What alternative vision is there? What new normal resolutions might we like to carry forward out of this crisis?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Work from home more; at least one day a week. I like being at home and having lunch with my family. I’m more connected to my young family now than I’ve ever been.
  2. Remove the through traffic from our residential streets. Every time I step out of my front door, I’m greeted with the sound of birdsong and children playing in gardens instead of traffic noise. And even before the Covid19 crisis, 54% of residents told us they would support restrictions on through-traffic on residential streets.
  3. Appreciate 1955. The current volume of traffic on our streets is blissful. I wouldn’t expect it to stay this low when we head back to normality, but let’s aim for less for the sake of our air quality and climate objectives. Bristol has already committed to traffic levels akin to the 1980s to meet our net zero carbon targets. Let’s ensure that happens by designing out the volume now.
  4. A high quality network. While getting out and about on foot and bike for shopping or exercise, I’ve actually found myself avoiding dedicated walking and cycling routes. They’re simply not wide enough to practice safe physical distancing, and while this is fine(ish) when the roads are quiet, we need a concerted effort to improve the quality and connectivity of our walking and cycling networks because what we’ve currently got isn’t good enough.

I’ve started you off, but I’d like to know your thoughts! Join the conversation at #NewNormalResolutions

Jon Usher is head of partnerships, England South at sustainable transport charity Sustrans

Main photo: Jon Bewley / Sustrans

Read more: Local author’s guide to traffic-free cycling

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