Were those quiet streets all just a dream?

29th June 20200 comments

Writing on the day that lockdown is all but being ended in England (not in Scotland or Wales), it’s a good moment to ask if Covid-19 will have any lasting impact on previous travel behaviours.

At the height of lockdown in the UK, 25% of the working population were laid off or furloughed, with up to 70% reduction in personal travel, although some public transport use was 95% or more down.

Yet life did not collapse. There were minor shortages (often triggered by a few people stockpiling) and distribution issues, and some normally important functions and services had to cease, but most of us could still get food; our bins were emptied; energy supplies were not interrupted; the homeless were housed (unlike previously); and, of course, the health service out-performed.

So, this crisis has exposed two key fallacies, namely that not everyone needs to be fully employed for society to function (with the corollary that sufficient jobs are available for all); and that high levels of mobility are necessary.

In addition to showing that very rapid and large-scale change is possible, if given the will, direct transport-related impacts of Covid-19 to date include:

More subtly, Covid-19 has:

Can these benefits survive as we go back to ‘normal’ conditions, with competition for physical space on our streets likely to become even more intense? For example, will the extra space outside shops or the new cycle lanes be retained when there are more, not fewer, people using their cars, for that is what surveys show will happen? Will novice cyclists and families continue to cycle when they are faced with vehicles passing too close to them (the new bike lanes will not be continuous), and poor air quality due to increased congestion?

So, can transport planners, with colleagues in related professions, ‘seize the moment’ to improve our quality of life and rebuild the economy, by building on this ‘new normal’ in a systemic way – or will they lose out to more traditional voices?

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Photo (Magdalen Street during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown) © Evelyn Simak (Licenced under CC-BY-SA/2.0)

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