The Guardian view on changing streets: drivers must give way

Cyclists and pedestrians need enough space to move around safely, not a culture war

Air pollution, obesity, the climate crisis: there are many reasons for shifting transport priorities apart from coronavirus. New clean-air zones in English cities including Birmingham and Leeds were due to launch this year, until councils postponed them because of the pandemic. In March, the government announced that transport policies and habits would need to change if the sector was to stop being a drag on reducing emissions. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said that public transport, walking and cycling should be the “natural first choice”.

Coronavirus has forced a change of gear. For public transport, the need for people to keep 2 metres apart is an intractable problem. Bus, train, metro and tram services are all designed to operate at high densities. The tube in London, for example, typically runs in peak periods with four or five passengers in each square metre. Even if these systems can find ways to suppress demand to manageable levels, and create enough space to keep people safe, there are big questions around funding without income from fares. The deaths of around 30 Transport for London workers from Covid-19, most of them bus drivers, are among tragedies that should have been avoided.

While this makes the future for public transport extremely challenging, at least in the short term, the prospects for active transport have arguably been enhanced. Over the eight weeks of lockdown, Britain has stayed stiller than it has been for decades. Until it is demonstrated that the virus has been contained, and the risk is minimal, people should continue staying put. But when, gradually, they start to move around again, the need for physical distancing means that some of the safest ways of doing so will be on bicycles, scooters, skateboards or feet.

At the weekend, £2bn of an existing £5bn transport fund was allocated to walking and cycling. For the first time, councils were directed to “reallocate space” away from motorists, creating pop-up cycle lanes. A new active transport commissioner and inspectorate have been mooted. This is all the more welcome, given the well-established links between obesity (and lack of exercise) and several of the conditions that make Covid-19 more dangerous, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research has also pointed to a possible link between air pollution and coronavirus deaths.

Discussions of transport in the UK too often degenerate into bun fights. Cyclists are pitted against drivers, city dwellers against commuters, taxis against buses. By far the most powerful of these tribes is motorists, mainly because there are so many of them: of the 808bn passenger kilometres travelled in the UK in 2019, 83% were driven in cars or vans. By contrast, the government’s target for cycling is to double the number of journeys to 4% of the total by 2025.

Green campaigners are right that we should drive less, particularly in cities, where congestion and pollution are problems and cars take up a lot of space. But with 68% of people driving to work even before the pandemic, cars are not going away. For many people (including 2.29 million blue badge holders) and in many places, there is no other way to get around, particularly in areas where buses have faced cuts. Even now, changes are likely to be limited to urban areas. It should be straightforward: to keep people safe, and promote healthy exercise, some roads need to be reorganised. Treating transport as a culture war was always a dead end. Hopefully the new pressures created by the virus will get things moving.



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