The dominance of the car is being seriously challenged for the first time in decades.
The equation is clear and the logic is powerful. City leaders around the world are waking up to the fact that the transport systems and urban infrastructures in a post-coronavirus world need to be radically different. It's obvious to all that public transport systems cannot run at full capacity due to social distancing and, generally, were wildly over crowded anyway, particularly in cities like London.
If people turn to private cars en masse it will lead to gridlock, economic meltdown as deliveries get snarled up and a rise in dangerous air pollution – the last thing needed in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic. And, funnily enough, it turns out that we all rather like breathing cleaner air. It's a new experience for many city dwellers.
“The only way London is going to operate in terms of our capacity on our roads and capacity on our public transport is to move wherever possible to cycling and walking,” said Will Norman, London's first Walking and Cycling Commissioner. “It is good for our health, it is good for our mental health and it is good for the environment.”
The same sentiment is being expressed in cities across the world, many of whom are enacting massive cycling and walking transformations to the centre of their cities. In the past few weeks, thousands of miles of new bike lanes have been built in cities like Paris and Milan, further afield, huge swathes of residential streets in places like Mexico City, New York and Bogotá are being closed to traffic, and experts say the dominance of the car is being seriously challenged for the first time in decades.
“We have no choice,” says Norman. “This is not ideological opportunism. This is a necessity.”
In an effort to turn this sentiment in to reality, London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has just unveiled one of the most ambitious walking and cycling schemes of any city in the world, closing off large parts of central London to cars and vans to allow people to walk and cycle safely as the lockdown is eased.
Susan Kenyon, an academic who specialises in travel and behaviour change, said it was simplistic to assume that building more cycle lanes and closing off roads to traffic would, on its own, lead to long lasting changes in behaviour. “For 100 years governments and industry have put cars and car use at the centre of our life and policy [decisions] and it will take a huge effort to unpick that.”
But 'unpick' it we must. No one is suggesting we are going to be like the Dutch or the Danes overnight. At the moment, both statistically and culturally, we are light years behind our European neighbours. In the Netherlands a whopping 26 percent of all journeys are made by bike. In Denmark the figure is close to 20 percent. In Britain, pre-lockdown anyway, fewer than two percent of journeys were made by bike, accounting for just over one percent of total distance travelled.
The reality is more than a third of trips in the UK are under two miles, and more than 60 percent less than five miles. There is plenty of scope, particularly in urban areas, for more one-person trips to be made by bike or on foot.
You always get people who say ‘I couldn’t do this. Because I live here and I work there. And there’s equipment to carry’. But you’re actually one of a minority. Most people could walk or cycle the journeys that they currently drive. We have millions of journeys across the UK every year of less than 500m in a vehicle. And millions more of less than a kilometre or two kilometres are made in a vehicle.
The trouble, historically, has been that towns and cities in Britain have not been optimised for pedestrians or cyclists. Too much traffic, too dangerous. So, less traffic, better cycling and walking routes should equal: not dangerous, let's do it.
An interesting analogy is drinking and driving. Not so long ago, many people's attitude was 'I've only had a few drinks, I'm fine to drive' when, of course, they were not. After relentless campaigning by police and government, Brits now take a completely different view. And, better yet, we insist that anyone who has had a couple of drinks doesn't get back in their car. It's become morally and socially wrong. Maybe, and hopefully quickly, we will become a nation that views a short journey in a car - which could very easily be done on foot or a bike - as morally and socially wrong.
Cars must become the last resort, not the first.