The coronavirus lockdown has changed my relationship to walking

Walking in Manchester in the age of coronavirus. Image: Getty.

Before the UK went into lockdown on the evening of the 23 March, I wasn’t really someone who walked for pleasure. For me, walking was a means to an end, not a thing in itself, and it was frequently boring and unpleasant. 

I live in Greater Manchester, where people own cars and public transport is for the eternally optimistic. As such, many of my commutes have involved walking, and not always in the kind of beautiful spring weather that the UK so cruelly saw during our first week of lockdown. One of my lowlights involved walking along a main road at night during a power cut, and being thankful for the snow on the ground because it meant I could see where I was going. I’d also have to mention the long, tedious walk in torrential rain from Oxford Road to the centre of Longsight, undertaken while listening to Cherry Ghost’s “People Help The People” on my mp3 player. It was, perhaps, my most ‘on brand’ Mancunian moment. 

At the time of writing, citizens in the UK are allowed out once a day for exercise. The lockdown rules, as laid down by the government, don’t mention how long we should be out of doors for, but a time period of one hour is often mentioned.  This is based on a series of off the cuff comments Michael Gove made during the first week of lockdown. 

Urban areas aren’t necessarily that well provided with green spaces, and that’s certainly the case where I live. As such, the immediate local area might not feel that attractive to many of you when faced with a request from your government and the NHS to stay local when exercising. I live on a main road, so pollution and noise are a big factor when taking a walk in the area closest to my flat.

But lockdown has changed my relationship to walking. 

For one thing, going for a walk is pretty much the only way I can get out of my studio sized flat each day, and as such, I value the opportunity to perambulate far more than I did previously. It’s amazing what a loss of freedom will cause you to value. 

Another reason I am beginning to enjoy walking is because the roads are both quieter and less polluted than they were a fortnight ago. This means I no longer have streaming non-seasonal rhinitis from road pollution and, as such, can wander the streets of Greater Manchester while thinking and contemplating life without my nose and eyes suddenly, and without warning, gushing saline and snot.

And it is quiet.  Not silent (I am still living on a main road after all) but definitely quiet enough to hear your thoughts.

My local area is very built up, with little in the way of green space (there’s a bit of grass about the size of a football pitch behind the flats which people use to walk their dogs and set off fireworks) but that doesn’t seem to matter in this new age of stillness. I no longer feel the need to put my headphones in when I’m out. Instead, I’m content to listen to the quiet and to my own thoughts while I notice my surroundings. I like to check which shops are open, and to smile at people.

A few years ago, walking was recommended to me as a good mindfulness activity to help with my anxiety. I didn’t get it then. I sort of do now. 

Cazz Blase is a freelance journalist specialising in public transport and music.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.