Changing lanes: urban mobility and the impact of Covid-19


The impact of Covid-19 is changing the way we live, and upending orthodoxies at a blistering pace. This holds true for transport as it does for so much else. Recent regulation change is set to have significant impacts on the way many of us interact with – and travel across – the urban environment.

By changing the rules around the advertising of traffic regulation orders, central government has now made it considerably easier for local authorities to impose car-free streets across the country. Whilst not noted in the new guidance itself, Chris Heaton-Harris, Minister of State for Transport, tweeted that the intention of this change is “to help local authorities that want to give cyclists and pedestrians more space on roads during the #coronavirus.

These are positive, common sense developments. The task now is to ensure these temporary measures are not wound back – as CLES has noted in papers published this week: there can be no return to normal. Indeed, returning to normality increasingly seems like an impossibility. Instead, with transport – as with so much else – we find ourselves facing a fork in the road.

Two scenarios lie ahead of us in how we use and traverse our urban environments.

We can take the path of Wuhan where, since the easing of the lockdown, car sales have rebounded and private car use has rocketed, while public transport use has shrunk. Or we can take the route being pioneered by municipalities across the planet, where this economic and social shutdown is being utilised as a moment to rethink and reorganise how we navigate our urban environments, with ambitious plans already underway to build cycle lanes and prioritise pedestrians.

Numerous examples of this proactive policymaking are already being witnessed across the world. The city centre of Brussels will soon be subject to a speed limit which gives priority to cyclists and pedestrians. Milan has announced that 22 miles of its streets will be transformed over the summer, with an expansion of walking and cycling space and the deputy mayor stating that “we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before.” Budapest, too, has committed to the introduction of a network of temporary cycle lanes. As the municipality notes, as well as making it easier to carry out exercise and socially isolate, “this will also ensure safer conditions on roads where so far few have dared to cycle.”

From Berlin to Bogota, municipal authorities are adopting and implementing ambitious plans which are setting aside more urban space to walkers and cyclists. In some cases these measures are temporary, in others they are already being recognised as permanent reorganisations of urban life.

Thus far, the changes in the UK are being treated as temporary.

This does not mean, however, that citizens, councils, and communities should not be pushing, in the here and now, for them to be made permanent. There is a rich lineage – for good and bad – in local government of temporary measures becoming entrenched in the long-term vision for how places are managed. With so much at stake, in the health of both our communities and our planet – now should be one of those occasions.

For many, Covid-19 has crystallised a realisation that we need to address the inequalities perpetuated in the way we organise our societies: not least in the ways we move around them. Preliminary studies looking at both England and across regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany showed links between poor air quality and higher death rates from Covid-19. This is depressing but sadly unsurprising: a Royal College of Physicians report from 2016 estimated that air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths a year.

Indeed, previous research by CLES and others on transport has consistently shown our current modes and patterns are deeply damaging and regressive – not just giving rise to new social and health inequalities, but also exacerbating existing ones. As an academic review from last year bluntly noted “people from deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to be injured or killed as road users”.

It is imperative then, that policy makers in our towns and cities ensure that mobility interventions are not confined to the “low hanging fruit” of well-heeled neighbourhoods where land values can be raised and existing cyclists can be courted. Instead, they must look to those communities where health inequalities abound and active travel uptake is low.

Thankfully, we know what to do, and councils now have the power to start getting it done.

With the approval of government and a once-in-a-lifetime moment where traffic is being deliberately restricted, now is the time for municipal leaders to act boldly and bravely: designating streets as car-free; lobbying central government for these changes and powers to be made permanent.

A reimagined urban environment where everyone is able to breathe cleaner air, travel by foot or bike and easily visit friends and family will not just provide us with more flourishing localities, but will also, through the health benefits of active travel, help ease demand pressure on strained public services.

The chance to forge that future is now here – though not in the way any of us might have wanted. Nevertheless, local authorities need to grasp the opportunity presented by central government with both hands, ensuring citizens – both during lockdown and beyond – have the opportunity to travel on safe streets and live in communities with cleaner air.