As we emerge out of lockdown and begin our economic recovery, we need to remember the other crisis that our city faces: the climate emergency.
Our carbon emissions target is a ticking clock that hasn’t stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic. And it won’t stop ticking as we try to provide the stimulus needed for our economic recovery.
Since the launch of the One City Climate Strategy one stark bit of evidence has stayed with me: the need to reduce vehicle mileage by over 40 per cent by 2030 to get even close to meeting our target.
This is a huge task, especially against the backdrop of every projection suggesting that nationally we will see an increase in traffic during the same period.
During lockdown we’ve been experiencing traffic levels akin to those last seen in 1955. Our 2030 aspiration sees us returning something similar to the 1980s.
New research out from the University of Bristol shows just how big a challenge this really is to deliver.
Going back to 1980s wouldn’t mean a return to shoulder pads and Audi Quattros, but this research shows that it would equate to more than halving our traffic from pre-lockdown levels.
The report emphasises the need to limit car traffic to a maximum of 20 per cent of journeys to meet carbon targets.
This would mean that walking and cycling needs to take the slack – by effectively doubling.
Walking would need to increase from 20 per cent to 36 per cent and cycling from ten per cent to 19 per cent. Public transport on the other hand would only need slight increases from 19 per cent to 25 per cent over the next decade.
The government is making it clear that active travel should be prioritised in our urban environments, from the Decarbonising Transport plan to new emergency funding for walking and cycling.
“In some places, there’s been a 70 per cent rise in the number of people on bikes whether it’s for exercise, or necessary journeys, such as stocking up on food,” said Grant Shapps MP, secretary of state for transport on May 9, 2020
“So, while it’s still crucial that we stay at home, when the country does get back to work, we need those people to carry on cycling and walking, and to be joined by many more.”
Bristol already has some ambitious plans to help with a sustainable recovery and an active return to work. But it’s clear from this research that moving beyond the emergency measures being implemented, we need to think about how we rebuild our city for those walking, cycling and on public transport.
The car needs to be thought of as the last resort.
It’s encouraging then that the Department for Transport has set clear directions and expectations for local authorities to follow in how they spend their emergency funding.
“To receive any money under this or future tranches, you will need to show us that you have swift and meaningful plans to reallocate road space to cyclists and pedestrians, including on strategic corridors,” said an letter sent to all councils in England by the Department for Transport on 27 May, 2020
“The quickest and cheapest way of achieving this will normally be point closures. These can be of certain main roads (with exceptions for buses, access and disabled people, and with other main roads kept free for through motor traffic); or of parallel side streets, if sufficiently direct to provide alternatives to the main road. Point closures can also be used to create low-traffic filtered neighbourhoods.”
Looking further ahead, we need to consider using every tool in our armoury to take chunks out of our car dependency. Every tool. From a workplace parking levy and congestion charge to a citywide residents’ parking scheme, everything needs to be on the table.
For too long we’ve encouraged people to walk and cycle or to use public transport, whilst the elephant in the room has always been that it’s simply too easy to drive.
Our language and intent need to change – we need to enable walking, cycling and public transport use.
We need to make walking and cycling the fastest, safest and most convenient option to get around.
Changes that make our city walkable, cycleable or more liveable also make it more equitable.
Because actually, it isn’t about walking and cycling, they’re just a means to an end.
John Usher is head of partnerships at Sustrans.
Main photo: Sustrans