If not now, when? Road space reallocation and climate smart recovery

by Dr Kadambari Lokesh

The Covid-19 “lockdown” restrictions have had a profound effect on travel. Car-based commutes have dropped by about 60-70%. Air quality in our major cities has never been better. However, there are some critical decisions to be taken quickly about how the gradual easing of social distancing is managed. Nowhere is this more visible or pressing than in the conflict between the space afforded to walking and cycling and cars.

The lockdown to date has been a story of people realising, as they take their limited daily exercise, that there is very little space afforded to pedestrians and cyclists, relative to cars. In addition, the recent increase in dangerous driving has shone a light on the ever present tensions between motorists and non-motorists and inequalities of road safety. This has led some cities to temporarily reallocate road space to walking and cycling.

In this post, we ask whether this reallocation of road space is also going to be seen in the UK, at scale, across our towns and cities. If we cannot make conditions favourable to active travel at a time when there are so few cars on the road, then when will we? If ever? And without road space reallocation, how will we mitigate the risk of increases in car use post-lockdown, as residents seek to avoid crowded public transport? The window for policy (and behaviour) change is narrow.

How are cities bringing mobility back?

photo of a temporary bike lane in Bogotá, Colombia
Temporary bike lane in Bogotá (Photo taken by: Gabriel L. Guerrero)

On one hand, we have Wuhan (China), the first city to go into lockdown, facing the biggest surge in car sales and first-time buyers, stemming from the residual COVID-19 anxiety.

On the other hand, Berlin’s Senate Department for Environment, Transport and Climate protection have undertaken two pilot projects by temporarily installing and expanding their cycling facilities in March 2020. The aim of this expansion was to help key worker’s demand for mandatory travel while maintaining the COVID-19 containment regulation. 

Bogotá, the Colombian capital, converted entire motorist lanes into 13 miles of temporary cycle lanes overnight. Standing at a total of 76 miles of cycle lanes, the authority’s aim is to mitigate potential overcrowding on public transport during and after the crisis.

In Milan (Italy), the current network of cycle lanes was further expanded, adding around 22 miles to the cycling network. They have revealed plans to keep these lanes even after the lockdown has eased, in order to address the local air pollution.

Here in the UK, two key roads facing the sea front in Brighton and Hove have been blocked to motorists and allocated for use by pedestrians and cyclists to get their daily dose of exercise.

The spokespeople for all these cities have highlighted that the current emergency powers, coupled with the drop in road traffic volumes, encourages them to capitalise on the situation and push for climate-sensible approaches. Similar strategies have been adopted in Cleveland, Vancouver, Denver and Philadelphia (USA); Calgary (Canada), Budapest (Hungary), Swindon and Glasgow (UK), to date.

Following these climate-smart actions, the Department for Transport have eased rules for putting in place Traffic Regulation Orders, making it easier for authorities to prioritise cyclists and pedestrians. This expands authorities’ emergency powers to encourage public mobility along a safe and sustainable path.

7 reasons why local authorities should act now reallocate road space to pedestrians and cyclists:

It’s good for public health

We need streets which help people maintain safe 2 metre social distancing between pedestrians, runners, cyclists, and people queueing to get into shops. More walking, jogging and cycling can provide the exercise people need for both their mental and physical health, whilst locking in the reductions in noise and air pollution we have seen in recent weeks. 

It’s good for safety

We can also improve road safety and reduce tension between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. We cannot allow the reduction in traffic congestion to simply be translated into more dangerous speeding on our streets and roads.

traffic cones marking car park off limits during Covid19 lockdown

It’s good for residents’ pockets

By offering a safe alternative to those people who struggle to afford the cost of running one or more household cars, we can help with households’ budgets during a difficult time.   

It’s simple and quick to do

Temporary schemes don’t need to be designed and appraised to the nth degree, and can be removed or adjusted later if they don’t work. 

It’s low cost and high impact for councils

Road space reallocation is needed anyway, and it is easier to do right now with less traffic on the road network. Expensive kit is not required for temporary measures, yet can make a big difference for the economic recovery. This would give residents better towns and cities to come back to, whilst delivering safe social distancing. Help avoid a costly return to lockdown, help the NHS, and help save lives.

It’s popular and in demand 

Creative residents in some areas have acted first – putting in place make-shift foot paths and cycle lanes using spray-paint to get things started. Cycling UK is also currently running a campaign which makes it easy to contact your local council to show local support for road space reallocation. Sign up to support the Cycling UK campaign.

DecarboN8 can help

We are currently looking at options for how the DecarboN8 Research Network can best support local authorities in rolling out road space allocation measures. We hope to launch a rapid response funding call to support this. Subscribe to our newsletter now to be the first to find out how to apply.

What you can do to help

Making our streets safe for social distancing and ready for a climate smart recovery matters to us all. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • If your local authority is interested in implementing road space reallocation please email DecarboN8@leeds.ac.uk to let us know
  • If you have already seen temporary road space reallocation in your area – whether by the local authority or by residents – please let us know! Email the location, photos, and any details of how it has been received by local residents to DecarboN8@leeds.ac.uk
  • If you are a researcher interested in evaluating temporary road space reallocation schemes please sign up to our newsletter and look out for details of funding we hope to make available soon.