Transport in the time of the Coronavirus crisis: what we need to do NOW.

I’m aware that most of us have, if anything, more tasks than usual to complete at this difficult time. There is also a natural reticence about “being political” at a time when many of us will lose loved ones. I certainly don’t think that phenomena like reduced motor traffic and better air quality should be airily welcomed as “silver linings” to the cloud of Covid-19. However, I would argue that there are ways in which we need to become involved in developments, not just because of the immediacy of matters like the need to control speeding from all too many drivers taking advantage of reduced traffic, but because the car-dominated status quo may become even more entrenched as the crisis subsides if we don’t.

We have already seen carmakers allegedly trying to weaken controls on emissions at this time . On March 23rd Transport for London suspended all of its charging zones to assist emergency services and critical workers. In fact, as critics such as Councillor John Burke of Hackney Council pointed out, these could have been exempted with existing technology. The result would have been even more convenience for them, and no increased traffic stress risked for London.

I mention this last case because in a Twitter debate on this with the President of the Automobile Association, he told us to “set aside ideology” – while being, in my view, all too “ideological”. A classic defence of the political status quo is to argue that we shouldn’t “be political”. But transport is political – we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Consider the current debate about actual (or exaggerated) levels of inappropriate use of parks, and the issue of police enforcing Government instructions. Compare that with reports that overstretched police officers may not be enforcing speeding   – by drivers who may well not be critical workers or making essential journeys – which has been normalised by all too many whose ideology claims that speeding is not a “real” crime.

In my view here are things that transport professionals and campaigners should be doing if they can find the time. It should be time well spent.

Oxford Street, Central London, Sunday 3rd April 2020

1. Keep informed and educated.

There is a lot to read and discuss with colleagues:

  • Some of this is “normal” transport news, appearing at this time but before lockdown happened.

A very important document was published on 27th March 2020 by The Department for Transport: “Decarbonising Transport: setting the challenge”    . Not since John Prescott’s failed commitment to reduce motor traffic in 1997 has there been such a formal stated desire from Government that “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network…Cycling and walking must be the easy and obvious choice for short journeys” The big issue is: How does this fit in with the £27 billion Budget road-building programme, or forecasts for increased motor traffic?   See the view here.

London Cycling Campaign released its important report on how London can address Climate Change, and held a webinar attended by several hundred people .

I would also strongly suggest reading and filing Professor Phil Goodwin’s piece here on appraisal and road building in the context of climate change targets.

And you may have missed this

  • Some of the news is COVID-19-related, referring to changes due to reductions in motor traffic.

The main areas of interest have been:

            Air Quality (AQ): Attention has been drawn to the superior AQ in urban areas. Some of this is about how poor AQ may have exacerbated the spread of COVID-19  , with an Italian study (although much of this is from industrial as opposed to transport emissions) and a US one  There is an interesting parallel between deaths from poor AQ and COVID-19: People with poor respiratory condition are more at risk from poor AQ; in addition, elderly and frail people are more at risk from COVID-19. Both groups are less likely to be “economically productive” when Cost-Benefit Analyses are used to assess the “value” of their lives.

            Road Danger Reduction: We have known for decades that reduced congestion intensity tends to lead to a decline in care taken by each driver (although overall danger can be cut if there are far fewer drivers). My information is that in London, Killed and Seriously Injured (KSI) casualties are down by 60%. Ultra-speeding has been identified as a significant problem on often apparently empty roads (see 3 below).

            Picking on “out groups”: There has been substantial debate about the actual or alleged misbehaviour by walkers, joggers etc. in public space. Cyclists have been criticised in various posts/articles, often by blatant misuse of telephoto lenses. By comparison, there has been less focus on drivers not using their vehicles for necessary or permitted purposes.

(c.) Some of the news is about the long term: “When it is over”.

Speculation, especially about  Climate Change, has been there from early on. I select this article as probably the most important I have read during this time. Note that it is by a former TfL Board member and supporter of the Conservative Party – not an academic or green campaigner, but someone embedded in the world of finance and energy. It is a reluctant (most of us don’t want to take advantage of a situation marked by so much personal suffering) take, but one which rightly points out the need to plan for the future. I urge you to read it all, but here are some extracts:

No bailout should benefit industries or business models that are not viable in the coming low-carbon world – such as low-cost airlines, coal-fired power generation, or uneconomic operations in shale oil and gas, oil sands and deep offshore oil…

Energy efficiency. Given the crash in demand, oil, gas, coal and carbon prices are likely to remain low for some prolonged period, reducing the economic rationale for energy efficiency. That is one accelerator pedal from which we absolutely must not take our foot…

Many of the new forms of behaviour we adopt through necessity are going to prove sticky – and given that most of them involve staying at home or staying local, they are going to act as powerful long-term brakes on emission growth…

Is it fanciful to hope that that as a result of Covid-19 the world pays a bit more attention to those urging us to respect our planetary boundaries, and a bit less to those pretending they do not exist?

Also see this piece particularly the quotes from Professor Dieter Helm at the end.

Finally, I find this graphic thought provoking:

  • Repurposing the street environment.

There is quite a lot here on developments throughout the world focusing on the need to reduce space for cars and motor traffic, and to increase space for people walking or cycling, e.g. 

Here is Berlin:


With physical changes such as re-allocated road space in Washington DC:

These can be good guidelines for the next section – what we need to work for now. I note three points: 

A. So far the UK has lagged behind other countries throughout the world. There has been NO road space re-allocation as of 10th April – well after he lockdown.

B. Even in those places where changes to the highway environment have been made, only a few roads may have been affected.

C. On a positive note, change is happening rapidly – by the time you read this, hopefully much of the report will be out of date (I shall add new developments at the end of the post)

But to finish this section, remember that data is all important through this period. There are rarely such extreme changes in traffic levels. This crisis will rank above sudden changes like extreme weather (e.g. December 2014); wartime and changing the rule of the road in Sweden in 1967 come to mind. It will be important to keep an eye on changes. For example, note that there appears to have been a decline in walking and cycling as well as in motor traffic in the UK. Also be aware that some changes – like a reduction in deaths due to improved air quality – won’t become apparent for some time.


2. Push for genuine support for Active Travel – General

I was pleased to be one of the 100 academics, researchers and public health professionals who signed this open letter Researchers call on government to enable safe walking and cycling during the COVID-19 pandemic”

We’re fortunate that walking and cycling have been explicitly mentioned in Government instructions as permitted and indeed advisable activities to do on a daily basis, along with bicycle shops being permitted to open. It is crucial to remember that cycling and walking – with proper social distancing – are needed for Mental and physical health, boosting immune systems to protect against the virus. See the responses to this survey here  and note the massive increase in the importance of cycling to respondents’ mental health due to the lockdown.

It is vital to note:

* Chances of injury from normal everyday cycling are minimal compared to other risks and the dangers of NOT cycling.

* Cycling is a superior form of commuting for key workers who would otherwise risk infection on public transport.

* The load bearing potential of cycling makes it a potential source of exercise , as well as transport, for many unable to run or walk more than short distances.

It is of the utmost importance that we defend the rights to walk, run and cycle for exercise. This is a public health crisis and keeping mental and physical health is crucial. Lack of the health benefits derived from walking, running and cycling are not just important in the long term, but well before then. Exaggerating the risks of cycling – “dangerising” it – is a staple of anti-cycling ideology.

Discussion about abuse of social distancing rules in open spaces and parks should not just involve investigating ways of getting compliance with the rules in such spaces (as it should), but on securing roads and streets with sufficient space to travel actively while maintaining social distance.

 Some obstacles. There are ways in which cycling could be properly supported here, but are not:

A. Provision of 1:1 cycle training to give confidence to returning cyclists. In London there are cycle trainers available whose schools/group training sessions have been cancelled, who could give properly distanced training. But because instructors are not classed as “key workers”, Transport for London cannot give the go ahead for this, .My understanding is that loss of revenue from public transport is making TfL reluctant or unable to fund initiatives like this.This is something that central Government should address.

B. Problems with bike theft for some NHS workers have received publicity on social media – this can be addressed by provision of secure and convenient cycle parking.

C. There are difficulties with checking roadworthiness of unused bikes being pulled out of storage – but bike shops and cycle trainers can deal with this. I would have thought that Government could assist by financing socially-distanced Dr Bike sessions to assist returners to cycling.

D. General advice to returners to cycling. The cycling charities are trying to do this – but why should it be left to charities?

E. Secure and convenient cycle parking at home. Installing this requires local Government support and funding.

Proper support for cycling should not be left to charities or volunteers (e.g. donating bikes to NHS workers whose bikes have been stolen). It requires genuine Government support with funding and easy to access local initiatives.


3. Push for genuine support for Active Travel – Re-allocation of road space

This is so far ( 11th April) the UK Government’s big failure.

Reducing road space available to motor vehicles in general and cars/vans in particular is required for the following reasons.

  1. It was entirely predictable that a substantial reduction in levels of motor traffic would lead to increases in speeding (or perhaps “ultra-speeding” is a better description) See this graphic from Manchester:

Reducing the amount of road space available to drivers is necessary to cut the ultra-speeding. Replicating the conditions of higher congestion intensity should also help to make drivers more careful.

  • Temporary/emergency separated cycle lanes could be installed to protect key workers and others who are taking up cycling, as well as those who already cycle.  I understand that there are concerns that simply installing such lanes could lead cyclists into a “false sense of confidence” when arriving at junctions.  Junctions may well need more complex engineering and re-phasing of signals, but I would have thought that addressing this issue properly should not be impossible.

See this example from Berlin:

Berlin: Kreuzberg
  • Numerous posts on social media point out the difficulties of social distancing on excessively narrow footways. Why not emergency extension of footways at this time? The first one may well be this row of cones on a street with inadequate space for queues for shops and properly distanced passers-by in Church Road London SW13. It was put up by local businesses and a community group. So far the Highway Authority (the Council) has not ben involved – although I do hear that some other Councils are considering steps like this.

  • Filtered permeability to be rolled out. This is a cheap method of addressing problems of excessive motor vehicle use, requiring primarily easy and cheap installation of bollards. Senior politicians like Harriet Harman have argued for this on residential side roads. It would have the effect of encouraging people to be outside and exercise in places other than crowded public parks and other open spaces. My understanding is that some senior police officers are concerned about the possibility of social distancing not being adhered to. But in principle it need not be a problem more than anywhere else.

See this from a UK street early in the lockdown:

Photo: Nick Doody

There are now numerous examples worldwide of measures like this being taken, and will be more after this post appears. See this account of the “re-purposing” of streets  with an interesting spreadsheet listing examples to be found here.    

Some examples:







Vienna (nice video)

Oakland :

Of course, these examples are generally limited to a small number of streets, but compared to the UK it’s something.

And some are more ambitious, like Bogota:

The Bogota Mayor expanded the city’s network of cycle lanes by 22 kilometres “overnight” to relieve pressure on public transport, as part of increasing it by 117 kilometres.

Additional temporary/emergency cycle lanes could be installed based on public transport corridors, network gaps and essential destinations. My understanding is that some filtered permeability is being planned for at least one London Borough (Hackney), with planning for safer cycling to at least one London hospital. However, it doesn’t appear to be happening with any sense of support from central Government. See this video in which Ruth Cadbury MP asks the Minister to encourage local authorities to re-allocate road space for cyclists 

Note that the Minister doesn’t think it appropriate for central Government to tell local highway authorities that they should do this“ I can’t say we’d encourage that from the centre…”. The impression I get is that he still doesn’t see cycling as a proper form of transport, and is there just as “exercise”.

This is indeed a question of Government simply wanting to do what it should to keep in step with its commitments towards addressing climate change, as well as public health and other transport and end environment objectives.

Compare with the German approach in Berlin:  “Three days have passed from the idea to the implementation of two new bicycle traffic facilities in Kreuzberg. That is about 500 times the usual tempo.” The Senator for the Environment, Transport & Climate Protection, Berlin: “Building pop-up bike lanes helps people keep their distance during Covid. We’re just building them in a day.”


4. Push for MORE roads policing.

Lincolnshire Road Safety partnership

It was entirely predictable that some forms of road danger would increase. While there is less overall where there has been massive reduction in motor traffic, drivers tend to take less care with reduced levels of congestion intensity. Some types of law breaking, particularly very high speeds – ultra-speeding as compared to “normal” speeding – have increased and are getting a lot of publicity.

For a high quality response, see publicity for the work of officers in the Met’s Roads and Transport Policing Command under Detective Superintendent Andy Cox. See this video put out at the beginning of the lockdown (seen by nearly 100,000 people) and publicity like this .
This has all happened in the context of a low level of roads and traffic policing which was cut to the bone by Government from 2010. In addition, Police Services now have officers off work from COVID-19 and some additional duties.

Fortunately the Metropolitan Police Service has had the best resourced roads and traffic commands – other Police Services will find enforcement in this area very difficult. I think it quite appropriate to ask central Government for more resources to achieve this. Also, don’t forget to thank and support your local roads and traffic police when they post on social media.

Photo: Road Safety Support

An aside: a note on messaging

Messaging is key to successful policing here. A key reason (if not the key reason) is to reduce rule and law breaking by drivers, letting potential law breakers know that they have a chance of being caught as a deterrent.

So I have some concerns about the repeating of the message that roads policing now is about not putting additional strain on the NHS. While it IS important to put additional strain on the NHS, there are two problems here, illustrated by this photo I took of my local London park:

Queens Park, London

For me the issue is not the probably minor, if any, injuries to the driver. The issue is the threat they posed to the (additional numbers of) people walking on the footway or crossing the road, and cyclists and pedestrians at this location when the driver failed to negotiate the mini-roundabout.

A. Road crime is REAL crime.
The key point is that the driver was breaking the law (unless they were forced off the road by another driver who was) and endangering other people. That should not be secondary to anything about the NHS. We don’t want this kind of behaviour to be acceptable when there is less strain on the NHS, and should make that clear.

B. It’s not about YOU, it’s about other people.
A key problem with traditional “road safety” ideology is neutralising the difference between endangering other s and being endangered. In the current context, telling errant drivers that they are problem because they may hurt themselves is counter-productive. This is because the risk to themselves in the modern car and highway environment is minimal (although not to ultra-speeders); and because the danger to others is the key point.

Lower limits?

There has been consideration of lowering speed limits in the current crisis to deal with the problem of excess speed. While there is support for this idea, my personal view is to concentrate on enforcing the existing limits. As there are limited resources, the priority for enforcement should be on roads where there are significant pedestrian and cyclist presence.


5. It’s not just about “now”.

We don’t know when the lockdown will end, or how. It may be the case that features of the present crisis stay with us indefinitely – and some of them, such as reduced motor vehicle traffic, should. You can be sure that there will be clamour from the motoring (and aviation etc.) lobbies to return to the old, unsustainable ways. We need to be ready to counter such moves: although we are primarily concerned with the immediate issues of the COVID-19 crisis, we have a duty to be prepared for the roll back of lockdown.

Here’s a list, modified slightly from that presented by London Cycling Campaign of what we need to be pushing for:

Work with central Government, local authorities, and transport authorities to:

• Seek a sustained reduction in levels of private motor traffic, pollution and carbon emissions. Urgently put into place public plans and targets for motor traffic reduction, using data available from before and during the crisis, to identify priority opportunities to change streets permanently for the better. Include smart road-user charging, axe major roadbuilding schemes, roll out employee parking levies, and enable more flexible and homeworking arrangements.

• Return space and priority to active and sustainable travel modes, rather than private motor traffic. Where possible, turn temporary motor traffic restrictions into trial and then permanent schemes, such as coned-off cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods.

• Increase roads and traffic policing. As a rough guide, this should be to pre-2010 levels in the first instance, with additional funding for effective 3rd party reporting systems.

• Ensure lower car use than pre-crisis levels at keyworker sites, hospitals and major employment centres such as council offices. Reverse free car parking at hospitals as soon as possible, and instead reduce the availability of car parking, add safe cycle routes, change distribution methods, consolidate deliveries and improve opportunities for greater flexible and homeworking to avoid traffic levels rising.

• Reduce HGV use through use of freight hubs and incentives for cargo bike deliveries over short trips.

• Accelerate existing plans for a more sustainable transport future. “Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge” can have timescales brought forward. So too the current revision of the Highway Code. And we really need to have a proper system of deterrent sentencing made available througha robust review of the current road traffic laws.

6. Conclusion:

For many of us this crisis has been about considering the common good and the things that rally important in life. Most people are complying with Government instructions to achieve this. Many of us are trying to maintain or improve mental and physical health. Most drivers are reducing the danger and adverse effects on public health and the environment by driving far less or not at all.

I believe we need to facilitate a more civilised environment now in accordance with Government plans and instructions, and have a duty to resist attempts from the most powerful to reverse these effects as this lockdown is rolled back.

Regents Park, central London

Dr Robert Davis, Chair RDRF, 11th April 2020


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