What does “not going back” mean for how we get around?

“I’ve lost count of the conversations with neighbours and campaigners wanting to keep some of the lockdown quietness and make sure that it stays safe for people to breathe, walk and cycle as we ease into a physically distanced future.” Green Party London Assembly Member and Transport Spokesperson Caroline Russell reflects on the walking and cycling networks shaping the future of how we get around.

An image of Caroline Russell
An image of Caroline Russell

Image: Chris King

Caroline Russell

Like many people who are not NHS or key workers, I’ve spent the last eight weeks working from home, staying away from public transport and living a very local life. I’ve rarely ventured far beyond the small shopping parade at the end of my road with a chemist, newsagent, hardware shop and range of independent food shops that have been keeping local residents supplied with all we need.   

My neighbours and I have adapted to the new regime of queuing two metres apart and people have got used to stepping out onto the road as they walk past the queues of shoppers. 

To start with the traffic levels were low and the majority of the vehicles were delivery vans, lorries, buses and the occasional ambulance. And it became increasingly common to see families travelling in convoy by bike. But over the last four weeks more people seem to be moving around, many still by bike, but the motor traffic has definitely risen and there are many more cars parked along the road. 

I’ve lost count of the conversations with neighbours and campaigners wanting to keep some of the lockdown quietness and make sure that it stays safe for people to breathe, walk and cycle as we ease into a physically distanced future. 

Safe social distancing on the public transport network means London’s bus and tube system can only take about 15 per cent of the usual number of passengers.  

The numbers are huge; usually the tube can take 320,000 people boarding every 15 minutes in rush hour and it will be down to just 50,000, which leaves London with a big problem as we start thinking about easing the lockdown and more people returning to central London. 

If everyone who used to travel by tube got in a car, we would have traffic jams and a pollution spike. You really don’t want this during a respiratory pandemic when emergency services need to get around and some people are fighting to breathe. 

We already have a problem with car dependency in this country. Even before the crisis, according to the RAC 2019 Report on Motoring, people felt that high fares and infrequent, inconvenient public transport services made them more dependent on cars.  

We shouldn’t think we all need to start travelling again like we did before the lockdown. Our top priority must be reducing the need to travel in the first place, with those of us who are able still working and staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives. 

Those journeys we do make will need to be mostly local on foot or by bike to leave the limited road space for essential journeys by disabled people, NHS staff and key workers using buses, cars and vans. 

Despite the government telling everyone to drive rather than use public transport, they do seem to have worked out that walking and cycling offer a solution to overcrowded cities as public transport systems can move just a fraction of the people they would normally if safe distance is maintained.  

It has felt as if London was slow off the blocks in taking big steps to allocate space on our streets to enable social distancing. I was jumping up and down with frustration as other cities announced increasingly ambitious plans to make more space for people in their centres. 

However, this last week in London has been a rollercoaster of extraordinary transport announcements. Not least the massive government bail out for Transport for London (TfL).  More significantly, the Mayor’s new Streetspace plan could really transform our streets and ensure that walking and cycling can play their full part in keeping our city working despite the ongoing need to remain physically apart. 

In London already some pavements are being widened on high streets to make space for social distancing and new bike lanes are starting to be installed. Many boroughs are making plans for low traffic neighbourhoods where carefully placed planters foil rat running, leaving quieter streets for people to get around safely under their own steam.  

Nationally, government says it will provide £250 million for temporary measures to aid social distancing, the first stage of an earlier announced £5 billion for walking, cycling and local bus services. Although the government has emphasised the need for councils to act quickly, as of yet no money has been provided to them for this purpose and it is likely they will have to bid for funding. This is a huge challenge for local authorities exhausted by the recent months of crisis management.   

I know that people in towns and cities across the country are telling their councils they want a creative response with streetspace measures to prioritise clean air and people walking, wheel chairing, scooting and cycling as they start making their increasingly local journeys to school, work and the shops.  

Fewer people now talk about “when this is all over” with any expectation that that people will be physically together back at work and commuting any time soon especially as we are so behind with establishing an effective local contact tracing operation.  

Walking and cycling, these simple and convenient ways of getting around, offer a way to keep many people out of cars and off public transport.  This will conserve limited road space for buses, deliveries and essential car journeys to avoid gridlock and keep our towns and cities moving while we live more locally and maintain our physical distance from each other.