It's not too late to prevent a driving apocalypse

A cyclist is pictured on an expanded cycling track in a street in Berlin's Kreuzberg district on on April 14, 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)

It is increasingly clear that there will be no wholesale lifting of the stay-at-home orders that have been imposed in so many countries around the world. Some restrictions will be progressively loosened within a matter of weeks, but life will not go back to normal for many months yet.  

Until the threat of the coronavirus dissipates, urban commuters in hard-hit places are likely to remain mistrustful of public transport. Buses and subways are poorly ventilated confined spaces. Every handrail and seat, touched by innumerable passengers on any given day, is a potential vector of infection.

Whenever restrictions are eventually loosened, many travellers who would normally use mass transit may flock to individual modes of transportation, which do not require brushing shoulders with strangers. In dense metro areas that have long neglected cyclists and pedestrians, this will mean the car.

Recent polling by AutoTrader, a car marketplace, found that half of public transport users in the UK would be less likely to use public transport after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Two thirds of those in city centres, typically the most reliant on public transport, agreed that having a vehicle would become more important in the future.

Yet the negative externalities associated with driving, from noxious emissions to gridlocked streets, have not disappeared. Even though changes to work patterns may result in fewer commutes as employees work more days from home, the weeks following the easing of restrictions could see an explosion in the share of journeys made by car in areas where a significant proportion of trips were previously made by public transport.

“As lockdown loosens, car travel will become more appealing than it was before the pandemic, potentially exacerbating inequality and climate change,” says Giulio Ferrini, the head of built environment at Sustrans London, a charity promoting sustainable modes of travel.

But there is still time to prevent a spike in car use and emissions. If cities and countries rapidly formulate coherent policies aimed at supporting the other individual modes of transportation – walking and cycling, known collectively as “active travel” – they can help ensure that mass transit riders don’t suddenly become drivers.

Such policies could involve widening pavements to allow pedestrians to pass each other at safe distances, setting up pop-up segregated cycle lanes on main roads, and plonking planters in the middle of residential roads to curb cut-through traffic. Governments and city authorities “should take advantage of the massively reduced traffic volumes under lockdown to proactively reallocate space away from cars now,” says Joe Wills, a researcher at the Centre for London, a think-tank.

“Encouraging people to make greater use of cycling and walking for local journeys will bring wider benefits, including holding down the levels of air pollution post-pandemic,” says Darren Shirley, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport in the UK.

In this respect, Britain lags far behind other places. Cities around the world, from Bogotá to Berlin, are already putting up hundreds of kilometres of temporary cycle lanes to permit people to get around safely and sustainably. France is planning to build so-called “coronalanes” linking Paris and its suburbs. Sustainable transport activists hope that once installed, some of the changes to streets will prove so popular that they will become permanent, even after the health crisis abates.

Comparable efforts from the UK on installing temporary active travel infrastructure, which will need come within weeks to avoid the worst of a spike in car use, have been curiously lacking. The most visible change the Department for Transport has made is to slightly relax the rules for local authorities to close roads. There are few hints of a national strategy for emergency infrastructure, nor signals from ministers that local authorities who choose to make roads more amenable to cyclists and pedestrians will have the support of national government.                                                      

This is all the more puzzling because the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has a better record of promoting cycling than any other British politician of comparable stature. Together with his cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s tenure as mayor of London saw the construction of several segregated cycle lanes into central London, including the east-west superhighway, widely considered one of the best in the UK. Gilligan was drafted into Number 10 when Johnson became prime minister last year.

Active travel is doubtless not at the top of the UK government’s current list of priorities. Yet as debate moves from tackling the current public health crisis to managing the new normal when restrictions begin to be eased, the personal inclinations of the blonde biker in Number 10 and those close to him could prove pivotal.

“Andrew Gilligan gets cycling,” says Ruth Cadbury, the Labour MP who serves as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group.

In a statement, Jim McMahon, the shadow minister for transport in the UK, called temporary cycle lanes “a promising idea” and suggested that national government should back local authorities that choose to install them. Chris Heaton-Harris, the junior minister for transport responsible for cycling, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jon Burke, the cabinet member for transport in the London borough of Hackney, told me that adapting mobility to the coronavirus age will require city authorities rethinking how they deliver schemes to promote walking and cycling. Interventions installed in days will not be up to the standard of plans that have been pored over for months by planners. “Messy urbanism is what is going to be required. These radical interventions will not be as shiny as they might have otherwise have been,” he says.

Burke, who prides himself on having kept a close eye on Johnson during an eight-year stint as an advisor in the London Assembly, is cautiously optimistic about the potential for the coronavirus crisis to prove a turning point in the UK’s approach to mobility. “Boris Johnson is mindful of his place in history. If he feels that this is an area in which he can create a historic legacy for himself – and given that he is a cyclist himself – the government may be minded to take the bold steps for active travel that this crisis demands.”

Ido Vock is a freelance journalist currently based in Tbilisi, Georgia. 


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.