Is the coronavirus crisis the crystal ball that holds the future of a green transport revolution?

Will the new normal help us pedal towards the emergence of car-free cities and escape our dark past?

Festival Net Zero 2021

The world has been deeply scarred by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

With the measures of a worldwide lockdown against the virus being eased gradually and people trying to gather up the pieces of shattered economies, what lessons have we all learned from this crisis?

While nature took breaths of life while we were not there, polluting mother Earth with our old bad habits, we were rewarded with cleaner skies, more balanced biodiversity and a vision of a sustainable future.

Governments around the world in a bid to keep this ‘green momentum’ are starting to introduce measures to promote greener mobility.

The UK has unveiled an ambitious plan to become a hub for a green transport revolution. The government by announcing a £2 billion package, has brought forward plans to increase green transport options, including cycling and walking and create a new era of green transport.

But how close are we to seeing London as one of ‘the world’s largest car-free zones’ as is the Mayor’s ambition?

And are willing to pay for this cleaner way of travelling?

We’ve certainly seen many more us on our bikes and not just those middle-aged pot-bellied lycra-clad Sunday riders. Mums, dads, kids and older people are getting on two wheels emboldened by safer streets, so are bikes the obvious route to green transport?

Duncan Dollimore, Head of Advocacy and Campaigns at Cycling UK says we need to encourage this trend.

“We are a very long way from a car-free world, but we can significantly reduce the number of car journeys without going car-free. In the UK, 68% of car journeys are under five miles,” he said.

“That’s a distance which, if we had the right infrastructure, many people would feel comfortable cycling.”

He says we can and should, be able to shift millions of those short car journeys to ‘active travel’ either by walking or by bike. This would massively reduce car usage with huge public health and environmental benefits.

He believes it’s not the first time we’ve heard these warm words coming from politicians: “It’s no good telling someone who hasn’t cycled for 15 years and is nervous about riding on a busy road alongside cars and lorries, that they really should give it a go.

“Our behaviour is influenced by the built environment, so if people think the roads aren’t safe to cycle on and if they’re nervous doing so, many won’t change their behaviour.

“If they see they can cycle separated from motor traffic however, they’ll consider cycling rather than driving, which is why building the right infrastructure is essential, so active travel looks like a realistic option for everyone, not just the brave”.

Is this the start of a brave new world?

Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced that returning to a city dominated by cars post-pandemic is ‘out of the question’.

Hidalgo has joined the leaders of a number of other European cities in setting out a plan that favours alternative forms of transport.

“A car-free Europe is not likely to happen – and to be fair, that’s not what we advocate for. We are not anti-car per se but it is inspiring to see so many cities taking bold steps to reduce the space available for cars and give it back to people,” says Niccolo Panozzo, Director of Communications of the European Cyclists’ Federation.

He added: “Some of these cities are taking really bold decisions and creating a positive snowball effect that is spreading across the entire continent.”

At the beginning of 2019, the city of Oslo restricted access to cars to a big chunk of its city centre. Suddenly, entire streets basically became cycle lanes and road fatalities went down to zero.

Mr Panozzo sees mainly two big obstacles to the wider implementation of the ‘green transport revolution’, the availability and accessibility of dedicated funds to sustain the investments and the strong pressure of the car industry that can influence local authorities.

“We are addressing the former working directly with the European Commission and DG MOVE, for the latter we are putting pressure on the European Parliament to make sure that European funds are used to help people and their needs, rather than polluting multinational corporations,”he said.

The army of the new era cyclists

The snowball effect seems to affect every city, now, after the biggest crisis after the World War II humankind has faced.

Every day we hear about increasing examples of this type of road space reallocation in the UK. Liverpool is spending £2m on 100km of temporary pop-up cycles lanes and pavement widening, whilst Bristol is closing streets to through traffic to open them up to walking and cycling.

Edinburgh will get five million pounds funding for new walking, cycling and wheelchair infrastructure, as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

But how friendly are our streets to welcome the army of the new era cyclists?

Dan Gillett, Policy Officer at Sustrans, the UK walking and cycling charity and custodian of the National Cycle Network told us: “Whether in a car or on a cycle, all road users have a right to use the road space and should do so with respect for one another.

“Fundamentally, many people who drive also cycle and can see the benefits of more people cycling; Bike Life 2019, the largest survey of UK population on the attitudes to cycling shows that 68% of people in 12 major UK cities support protected bike lanes, even though this would mean less space for cars.”

We need more road space for business purposes

But all these cycle-friendly measures might come with an unexpected environmental and economic cost. If we make more space for us all on bikes what happens to the space for freight?

Rod McKenzie, Managing Director of Policy & Public Affairs of the Road Haulage Association said policymakers must not forget the majority of road users, especially for business: “Closing off a busy traffic lane for cyclists to use less than 5% of the time while increasing congestion and therefore pollution, on the remaining lanes, is not good planning.

“We need more road space for all modes of transport including cyclists but not forgetting the majority of road users, especially for business.”

He believes the new cycle lanes will make lorry drivers’ lives harder: “The new lanes will increase congestion and lengthen journey times for lorries which supply 95% of what we have in the UK today: at a time when we are trying to restart the economy HGVs are the key engine of growth.

“If things don’t arrive in our supply chain then manufacturing process or supplies to our supermarkets or pharmacies will be affected and people quickly notice. Factory production lines stop, lorries face fines for late deliveries and costs increase for hauliers, including the extra fuel caused by waiting in traffic jams.

“To those outside the industry they might feel these are small costs but for a big lorry it can be many hundreds of pounds: for a vehicle making a typical margin of around £60 per journey that will quickly drive them out of business.”

“The prospect of a car-free London fills me with anger”

So good news bikes are cleaner.

Bad news we may not get our goods transported.

Even worse news we may stop the disabled people getting around!

Ceri Smith, Head of Policy and Campaigns at disability equality charity Scope said there are major challenges ahead, to ensure the design of the new urban spaces, don’t disadvantage disabled people:

“Immediate term challenges might include taxis and cars not being able to get close enough to a disabled person’s workplace. The proposals could also mean longer and more congested journeys for disabled people who need to get to central London hospitals.

“In the longer-term, these changes could lock many disabled people out of the cultural heart of the capital.”

Samantha Renke, disability campaigner and central London resident adds: “I can see why this is being done, I want London to be the best it can be for all its residents, but the prospect of where I live in central London being a car-free zone, fills me with trepidation and anger.

“I am a full-time wheelchair user and as someone who has a rare condition that causes my bones to break at the slightest knock, I rely solely on black taxis (which by law are all adapted for those with impairments) to maintain my independence and go about my daily activities.

“The change means I will not be able to get a cab, so I will effectively be barred from meeting friends and family.”

Arunima Misra, powerchair user and solicitor says: “London is already a daunting city to manoeuvre around and those who are already finding it difficult to navigate, are now going to find it even harder.

“Has the impact on these minority communities been considered?

“What about our elderly population and those who need to be transported to for hospital and medical appointments? What about ambulances?

“Has the impact this will have on closing the employment gap been thought about? If a disabled person falls at the first hurdle and cannot actually physically get to work (once it becomes safe to do so), how are we going to go about encouraging more capable, intelligent and hard-working disabled people into the workplace? People who want to contribute to society and to our economy?”

Is pedalling bringing us together or driving us apart?                                          

Where London leads other cities are following.

Andrew Fisher who lives in Manchester is a keen cyclist. He thinks the capital is changing the mindset: “London has always seemed to lead the way with green initiatives and transport planning, possibly due to the size and amount of usage.

“The quick response to provide additional footways and cycleways is really good, as any delay in providing a response could lead to a return to normal levels of traffic with people reverting to their normal modes of travel. Over the last few years with the introduction of a wide network of cycle lanes cycling in London has doubled and doubled again.”

He believes that the recent announcements from London’s authorities will help shift even more journeys to sustainable modes.

“In Manchester the public transport system is poor and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority have no say over how it is run, leading to unprofitable services being axed.

“We are just starting to develop a network for cycling and walking which should develop in the next few years. Not all of the councils within GM have the same attitude towards improving cycle routes so getting similar standards across the region is difficult.”

Can we all win?

David Bosley works in Sales and after a pause has rejoined the cycling movement five years ago. “I am now 49 and work in Sales.  Incidentally, my fitness age is now 20, and I would be far fitter than the vast majority of people half my age.  I have just started competitive cycling. I live in South Oxfordshire, I used to coach and manage a Youth Cycling team, and now do the same for a ladies team.

“I have used cycling to reverse early indications of type 2 diabetes, I also use cycling to maintain mental health, having suffered from bipolar disorder, I now use no medications for any of my conditions.

“I’ve lost 25 KG from my heaviest and was supposed to be on many medications for life.  I have also moved from what would have been a high-risk group for Covid-19 (type 2 diabetes) to a low risk, through cycling.”

He says we need to change our behaviour towards cyclists.

“The main problem is the way of thinking.  We think of people as motorists or drivers.  The reality is the majority of cyclists are both, and we are all people, human beings, mums, fathers, sons, daughters, nurses or doctors, policemen or firemen, students, or maybe even aspiring pro cyclists, who we all love to applaud in the Olympics or Tour de France.

“We can all win. Every cyclist is contributing to a reduction in pollution, congestion, and healthcare costs, on every journey.  Even recreational cyclists – think of the alternative – drive to the gym and back.

“Drivers need to realise we are speeding them up, and reducing their journey time, not the opposite.

He believes legislation is what we need.

“Legislation is the key to making real change.  A change in the law to make cyclists feel safe.  To put the weight of law behind policy, to say to motorists that they must put cyclist’s safety above their convenience.  Britain is one of only five European countries not have strict liability laws to protect cyclists as vulnerable road users, alongside Romania, Cyprus, Malta and Ireland.”

He says cycling can be seen as a potential panacea. It will not solve all our problems but it will help massively with most of the serious problems we currently face.

Maybe the time for change is now, the change is already done, we may just need a little policy in place to make it stick.

Without this policy change, even the most ambitious plans of £2bn are doomed to fail and sadly wasted.

No matter how many pop-up cycle lanes, wider pavements and ‘innovative’ initiatives are introduced, if we fail to put a framework of the ‘green transport revolution start button’ that coronavirus offered us, people will revert to where they feel safe.

In their two-ton metal box.

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