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.