Coronavirus is transforming the transport landscape of the UK

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. The UK is amongst the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, its lockdown started later and was less severe than most neighbouring countries but traffic was still reduced to early 1970s levels bringing both quiet streets and clean air.

With less traffic many people dusted off their bikes or leapt onto new ones (sales doubled) and cycling increased by 70% in parts of the UK. Many others chose to walk for daily exercise. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide plummeted and lung disease patients breathed a little easier - one in six people living with lung conditions in the UK noticed their symptoms improved. A YouGov poll for T&E found 69% of UK city residents sensed clean air during lockdown and do not want the pollution to return.

But as the lockdown has eased, some of the traffic has returned - fuelled by public fears of catching the virus and clear government advice to “avoid using public transport where possible.” If nothing is done, traffic in Central London could double; and in the rest of the UK, Britain’s streets could be swamped by one million extra car trips. A potential renaissance in car use is on the cards unless national and local government take steps to provide safe alternatives. But to the genuine surprise of many transport campaigners this is what the government has begun to do. This was first flagged in a “gob-smacking government vision for the future of transport where "public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities.” This vision has now been translated into a real commitment with a £2 billion (€2.2 billion) investment. Trials of e-scooters, that are currently banned, have also been brought forward. But policy remains highly contradictory with £28 billion investment in new roads also planned.

With new money available and an urgent need to provide ways to safely navigate across cities, pop-up bike lanes and widened pavements are appearing. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan announced the closure of large areas to cars and vans, reintroduced the emission zones and significantly raised the congestion charge. His streetscape plan aims to increase cycling 10-fold and walking five-fold post-lockdown. A YouGov poll for T&E found 86% of Londoners are in favour of measures to reduce car emissions and use, with just 3% rejecting action. But despite overwhelming public support, there predictably remains loud opposition from a vocal minority. The black cab drivers lobby called the measures an outrageous land grab.

In Birmingham, once the UK’s “Auto City”, an emergency coronavirus transport plan is intended to reset how Brummies move around by encouraging walking and cycling. But the Council has also perversely delayed the introduction of its low-emission zone (despite evidence of strong support for progressive policies among Brummies). In Manchester, the City Council has opposed the introduction of pop-up cycle lanes, arguing there would not be sufficient demand. An application for funding by nine neighbouring authorities could now lead to new routes through the suburbs dangerously stopping at the boundary to the city centre! Some 66% of greater Manchester residents want more bike lanes. In the past London has experienced similar turf wars with local councils stopping the mayor extending the network of cycling superhighways.

Whilst the tragedy of coronavirus is stimulating more acceptance and investment in active travel choices, it is also creating an existential threat to public transport operators. Ridership has been slashed and the YouGov survey shows just 20% of regular users saying they are still happy to use buses and trains. More positively, 60% indicate they will return when it is safe to do so and just 16% say they will not. With no sign of the virus being eliminated in the UK anytime soon, social distancing will continue to restrict ridership and revenues. So, bailouts and bringing more services into public ownership may be the only way to maintain any service in the coming months or years. 

Many businesses are also recognising that employees can be just as productive working at home some days, avoiding long and tiring commutes, and perhaps signalling that gridlock caused by the daily rush-hour in cities may one day come to an end. 

Coronavirus is transforming the transport landscape of the UK. Overall, the direction of travel is right and the pace of change remarkable, but policy is inconsistent with legacy commitments to new road building that still need to be rolled back. To reduce emissions EV’s, and possibly e-bikes, will do much of the heavy lifting. But to deliver more habitable cities and meet the clear demands of urban residents UK political leaders need to make bold choices to reallocate road space from cars as citizens are now demanding.