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Supporting walking and cycling will be a crucial part of our post-Covid recovery

The UK's first Covid cycle lane on a dual carriageway in Hove. | PA Images

4 min read

Active transport like cycling and walking are vital to the nation’s coronavirus recovery – but they need to be integrated across government policy making.

The public are being told not to use public transport unless their journey is essential and they seem to be doing just that: I’m on the 08.30 train to London, in a carriage with 60 seats but only three passengers.

Social distancing measures mean buses, trams and trains operating at a fraction of normal capacity. Services are increasing to near pre-lockdown frequencies, but at maximum occupancy levels of 20%, public transport clearly can’t accommodate everyone who needs to travel and the financial implications are dire.

Meanwhile the once eerily-quiet roads are filling up. Traffic has already returned to 70% of pre-lockdown levels.

One of the few positives of the crisis has been an explosion in the number of people taking to their bikes for both exercise and essential journeys. But there’s a real danger they’ll abandon them just as quickly if the roads no longer feels safe.

Before coronavirus the Government needed to increase levels of walking and cycling to tackle carbon emissions, air pollution, congestion and inactivity. Last July’s Transport Committee report into Active Travel made clear recommendations about how to do it.

However, as Chris Boardman, Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner recently told the All Party Cycling and Walking Group, with a quarter of UK households having no access to a car, right now investment in cycling isn’t about the usual arguments, “it’s about social justice, social inclusion and making sure that those who don’t have a car have a safe travel choice.”

Transport policy needs to get out of silos. We need joined up thinking, and not just within the DfT but across Government

Going into the crisis the Government’s response was fragmented: a mode by mode approach with rail, then bus and finally tram provided with packages of support.

By early May the DfT had woken up to the need to encourage people to walk and cycle as an alternative to using public transport, with the confirmation that £2bn of the previously-announced £5bn for cycling and buses was now earmarked for cycling and walking investment over the next five years, including a £250m ‘Emergency Active Travel Fund’ to help local councils introduce wider pavements, temporary cycle lanes, local road closures and 20mph zones in the current financial year. A good start but there are further steps Government needs to take.

First, the funding needs to be accompanied by best practice guidance. The DfT has been promising to publish revised guidance on cycling infrastructure design for more than a year – it needs to be published now or we won’t get good value from the extra spending.

Second, transport policy needs to get out of silos. We need joined up thinking, and not just within the DfT but across Government.

Transport ministers need to be talking to colleagues in Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that new housing developments have adequate provision for pedestrians and cyclists and that public transport is considered in planning decisions.

Local transport authorities need to be involved in planning for schools reopening and how best to organise and fund transport to enable staff and students to get there. DfT ministers should be asking colleagues in Health how the NHS can help promote cycling and walking.

Third, the transport secretary set out a bold vision in the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, stating “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less.” He must back that up with targets for modal shift and a clear plan to achieve them.

Last week’s progress report from the Committee on Climate Change, was a reminder that coronavirus isn’t the only global crisis we face and there’s an unprecedented opportunity to address both by getting more people walking and cycling and by ensuring people return to public transport safely.


Lilian Greenwood is the Labour MP for Nottingham South and former transport committee chair

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