It’s clear that even as we begin to ease out of lockdown the effects of Covid-19 will shape our lives for many years to come. Over the past few months, one of the most noticeable changes has been the dramatic reduction in the traffic on our roads, and the subsequent increase in the number of people choosing greener methods of transport, such as cycling and walking.
As people start to return to work, and we strive to get back to the ‘new normal’, it’s incredibly important that we don’t just return to ‘business as usual’ where car use is concerned. This particularly true given that social distancing measures have resulted in a dramatic drop in the capacity of public transport. If that lack of capacity means that those who own them simply choose to get back in their cars, it will exacerbate air pollution and congestion issues.
I’ve taken the opportunity during lockdown to enjoy some amazing recreational bike rides in and around Bristol – as well as cycling to work in London for the first time, covering some 40 miles a week between my flat and Westminster. With fewer cars than usual on the roads I finally felt safe and confident enough to get on my bike in the capital. But if traffic begins to increase again I don’t know how long I’ll want to continue.
Labour Councils across the country have been doing brilliant work in rising to the challenge of making our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians. In Hackney, for example, they have widened the pavements outside busy high street shops by removing parking bays and are extending their ‘School Streets’ initiative to another 40 schools by the start of the September term. In Leeds, they are planning to deliver an additional 100km of segregated cycle lanes, temporary widened footways and low traffic neighbourhoods. And in my own home of Bristol, the Council is bringing forward plans to pedestrianise the city’s historic centre. But it shouldn’t just be left to Local Authorities to solve these issues – we need a nationwide transport plan for greener travel.
Of course, there is often a perception that issues around green transport are part of a middle-class policy agenda – a ‘nice to have’, rather than a matter of vital importance. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The issue of green transport is one of social justice – and that’s something that rings even more true during these strange and difficult times. The Government’s own report last week showed that members of the BAME community are more at risk from Covid-19. It’s therefore vital that as part of the additional protections that may need to be extended to those communities, those people who feel they are able to can safely walk and cycle to work, thus reducing the risks taken on public transport. We also know that those who live in poverty are more exposed to the damaging effects of air pollution, and that – crucially – the air pollution to which they are exposed is likely to be caused by richer households. With studies showing that air pollution may contribute to the worst effects of Coronavirus, clean air is as much a health and social justice issue as an environmental one.
For many of our most deprived communities it’s not just about making sure that people can safely cycle, but also that they can access the means to travel sustainably. Hartcliffe and Withywood is one of the poorest wards in Bristol, and nearly half of its households do not possess a car or a van. But despite this, only 10 percent of residents ride a bicycle once a week. As a ward on the outskirts of the city, with residents often needing to travel substantial distances to work, e-bikes would be an ideal solution. But for many households they will simply be unaffordable. The cycle to work scheme brings the cost of equipment down – but is there more that can be done?
It’s obvious that there are many questions still to be answered on how we best enable people to access green transport. But two things are crystal clear. Firstly, that shifting to sustainable travel isn’t just about the environment, or the climate emergency – as vital as it will be to both those things. It’s an issue of social justice. And secondly, as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, we need to embed the temporary changes that have enhanced sustainable travel as a permanent solution in our towns and cities. Not doing so would be a massive missed opportunity – and one for which future generations may well not forgive us.