A series of road transport experts has this week predicted precisely what the government fears – that the nation is heading for gridlock as people continue to shun public transport in favour of cars. The warning comes as many local authorities scrap emergency active travel schemes in response to opposition from a vocal minority.
According to the government’s own figures, motor traffic is already back to almost 100 per cent of levels before lockdown, despite 28 per cent of the workforce still working remotely.
While the prospect of a second national lockdown currently looms large, Rachel Aldred, Professor of Transport at the University of Westminster, has predicted that ultimately up to 2.7m more people who had previously commuted by public transport could switch to travelling by car when measures are eventually lifted.
According to Aldred, rising levels of motor traffic stem from a failure to provide safe alternatives, such as segregated cycle lanes.
“Without such changes, motor traffic will only grow further as and when lockdowns are relaxed,” she said. “Do-nothing means more traffic jams, more road injuries, and more pollution.”
The Government agrees that without large numbers switching to active travel, towns and cities’ roads will grind to a halt, and so it announced a £225m Emergency Active Travel Fund in May.
However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has since said that many councils “abused” the initial allocation of funding and threatened that further cash could be withheld.
Cycling UK also highlights a vocal minority of people and MPs who have taken exception to schemes, blaming them as the sole cause of congestion.
To provide just a few examples: Conservative MP Crispin Blunt helped force the removal of a pop-up cycle lane in Reigate after just three days; a pop-up lane in Gloucestershire was scrapped after five days following complaints it caused traffic jams; and a Swindon bike lane was removed within a week because people were moving the lane dividers.
Two taxi groups have also submitted legal papers challenging the emergency measures being introduced in London.
Manchester Council’s Executive Member for Environment, Planning and Transport, Angeliki Stogia, was another to speak out against pop-up cycle lanes, arguing that if she were to “take out capacity on major routes” by constructing pop-up lanes, it would result in greater congestion.
Similar comments were made by Royston Smith, the Conservative MP for Southampton Itchen, who complained that the City Council was exacerbating congestion by “taking out lanes”.
John Parkin, Professor of Transport Engineering at UWE Bristol, disagrees.
“A good way of relieving the pressure as a result of this excess of motor vehicles is for as many people as possible to switch to using more efficient forms of travel,” he said.
“For trips of a typical urban length the bicycle offers a highly efficient alternative. A lane the width of a car lane can carry three to five times as many bicycles as cars.”
Research has also repeatedly found that opponents to active travel schemes are in the minority.
A YouGov survey commissioned by the BikeIsBest campaign group earlier this year found that 77 per cent of people in Britain supported measures to encourage cycling and walking, while a recent YouGov poll for Greenpeace found that 57 per cent of people support low traffic neighbourhoods.
Dr Joshua Vande Hey from the Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability at the University of Leicester, said: “We have to work very hard together to understand the systems-level picture of our cities. This means that we have to develop holistic plans for active and public transport infrastructure and connectivity backed by substantial government investment, and make absolutely sure we are not further pressurising disadvantaged groups.
“It also means that rather than blaming each other for our problems that we look carefully at the data behind the problems. An inclusive transformation toward sustainable transportation requires us to consider the complex system we are all part of, and how we can make it better for everyone through a cleaner environment and healthier lifestyles.”
Richard Allsop, Emeritus Professor of Transport Studies at University College London, said that while the pandemic had provided an opportunity to reshape our roads for the better, it would mean uncomfortable choices for many.
“All users of motor vehicles have to find by trial and error how best to make their journeys, and perhaps which to give up making in their vehicles, as they collectively get used to the enhanced – but from their point of view reduced – network,” he said.
“This will be a bit uncomfortable for quite a lot of us and really awkward for some. But our share in this discomfort is just our tiny share of the vast price that needs to be faced up to to reduce emissions, decarbonise transport and do our country's bit in keeping climate change manageable for future generations.”
Dr Steve Melia, senior planning and transport lecturer at UWE Bristol, says a reduction in motor traffic levels is doubly necessary with the UK population still expanding.
“These trends are not just threatening the transport system; they are threatening the future of our cities and our countryside,” he said.
“Britain’s population is still rising, despite Brexit. The government wants to build 300,000 homes – like a city the size of Sheffield – every year. Since the late 1990s most new housing has been built in large towns and cities. Our cities could house many more people, but not many more cars. It’s a simple question of space.
“As a nation, we have two choices: house more people with fewer cars in towns and cities, or give up and let car-based housing sprawl across the countryside. If we want to avoid that nightmare scenario then we must remove traffic and improve conditions for walking and cycling in urban areas.”
Duncan Dollimore at Cycling UK added: “Even before the pandemic, congestion was a serious issue for the UK, costing the economy £6.9billion a year while road users were losing on average 115 hours and £894 a year.
“The simple fact is that we need to make it more appealing for people to cycle and walk, particularly for short journeys, to avoid clogging up our cities with polluting motor traffic. Let’s beat the congestion and let’s get the country moving again, safely, healthily and cheaply, by foot or by bike, helped by restored confidence in using public transport.”