Chris Boardman has warned that time is running out to harness the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on the way we move around the UK’s cities to ensure a lasting benefit. His appeal comes as an AA survey of nearly 20,000 members suggests that a third of them will cycle, walk or run more once lockdown restrictions ease.
Speaking to The Independent, Boardman, the former world and Olympic champion who is now Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner, said: “It’s a chance to redefine ‘normal’, but we’ve only got weeks to do it.”
The lockdown in force since late March has led to levels of traffic plummeting and air quality improving across the country.
But despite calls from campaigners to make it easier for local authorities to temporarily reallocate roadspace to people on bike or on foot the UK has been slower than some other countries such as Germany to enable temporary infrastructure such as pop-up cycle lanes to be put in place.
Nor have longer-term measures been unveiled, in contrast to cities such as Milan, the capital of Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region, where the Strade Aperte initiative unveiled last week aims to encourage cycling and walking once lockdown restrictions are lifted.
“I am studiously avoiding utilising the word ‘opportunity’ because thousands of people are dying right now,” Boardman said. “But we would be crazy to ignore some of the things that are happening around us which we would love to be part of a new normal.”
Slowly, some parts of the UK are closing roads to motor vehicles, as has happened in Brighton, while the Scottish Government has made £10 million available to councils for pop-up cycling and walking lanes, with campaigners expressing hope that some such schemes may become permanent.
However, Boardman fears that unless swift action is taken to make it easier for people to travel actively, the UK could experience a situation similar to that in Wuhan, the Chinese city that witnessed the first COVID-19 outbreak, and where there has been a resurgence in private car use in after lockdown restrictions were lifted as people sought to avoid public transport.
He said: “Right now is a critical period to prepare for that .In China they can see that the potential for a bounce back to even higher levels of car use is absolutely huge – unless you give people an alternative.
“You can make plans for a filtered neighbourhood, for example, and normally you would have to go through a whole consultation period.
“But right now you can say ‘We’re going to implement it in seven days’. Then you have an opportunity to say to people ‘This has been in place during lockdown. Do you want to keep it?’”
Boardman also highlighted the strong growth in cycling seen since the lockdown began in the UK, and pointed out the wider benefits from a public health point of view if that momentum remains once everyday life returns to something approaching normality.
“We have a situation the likes of which we’ve never seen, where you’ve turned off car use globally,” he explained.
“It sounds melodramatic when you hear that, but it’s a fact. We’ve turned off car use, or certainly rolled it back 70 years, and people are choosing for themselves [to cycle].
“If you genuinely want to help protect the NHS, this wonderful slogan that’s going around, this is how you do it, now and for the future.”
But he cautioned: “The scary thing is that we’ve only got weeks, and I’m not sure which way we’re going to choose.”
Meanwhile, new research from the AA suggests that almost a quarter of drivers, 22 per cent, will drive less once lockdown restrictions in the UK are eased, and that 36 per cent will walk, cycle or run more.
However, the AA warned that the results of the survey of almost 20,000 of its members also suggested that some towns and cities could see an increase in private car journeys as a result of people shunning public transport.
AA president Edmund King said: “Potentially there could be major changes to the way we travel post-lockdown. Analysis suggests that one fifth might use public transport less in cities post-lockdown.
“Outside of London which has parking and congestion charging restrictions, we could see an increase in car use in other cities where people shun public transport for fear of the virus.
“However, this trend may be countered with a change in driving patterns by those who normally drive but have got used to leaving the car at home during lockdown. More than one in five say they will drive less after restrictions are lifted. It is also likely that at least one in ten will work from home more often.”
He added: “Life after lockdown will be different. Some will shun public transport, others will drive less, more will cycle and walk, working from home will continue for many. Some drivers who have appreciated lower traffic noise, fewer and shorter journeys, may be prompted finally to buy an electric vehicle.
“All in all, life will return and the increase in car use in some areas instead of public transport will be countered by others realising that they can use their cars less by working from home or even walking and cycling more.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.