COVID-19 has inflicted an unparalleled shock to the global economy and, as a result, is having considerable, sustained impacts on how and why we travel. Yesterday the government released additional statutory guidance providing advice on techniques for managing roads to deal with COVID-19 response related issues. The guidance sets out high-level principles to help local authorities manage their roads and provides some suggest actions that they could take. The full release can be found here.
Prior to lockdown one of the most important themes facing local authority clients was developing plans to decarbonise their transport networks, while maintaining access and growth. As we entered the COVID-19 crisis, local authorities covering a population of over 26 million people had declared a climate emergency in the UK and transport was the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions.
As we all now think about emerging from lockdown and transitioning to a new normal, it is essential our plans consider long-term objectives of decarbonisation and embed sustainability through their design.
In that respect yesterday's announcement is welcome, with the government acknowledging that the end of lockdown presents a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to transform the way we make short journeys in our towns and cities.
Certainly, the guidance was accompanied by a clear message to act - in Grant Shapp's foreword he states that the government... expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians
Certainly, the guidance was accompanied by a clear message to act - in Grant Shapp's foreword he states that "the government... expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians." But the guidance also calls for action to happen quickly - "measures should be taken as swiftly as possible, and in any event within weeks, given the urgent need to change travel habits before the restart takes full effect."
This therefore truly feels like an unprecedented opportunity. In this short article, I offer 5 key steps local authorities can take to embrace the opportunity this guidance presents to support active travel both now, and beyond lockdown.
The guidance sets out 10 measures local authorities can take to reallocate road space. The measures are not new, but combined with the department's temporary guidance on TROs, there should be considerable opportunity to support a much greater uptake of walking and cycling. One option local authorities could consider is large-scale 20mph zones. The guidance states that "20mph speed limits are being more widely adopted as an appropriate speed limit for residential roads, and many through streets in built-up areas", however there is no reason speed reductions shouldn't be applied more liberally. By defining 20mph zones within city centres and residential areas, local authorities will help signal the change in priority towards pedestrians and cyclists. Prior to lockdown, the average speed on urban A-roads was 18.5 mph anyway, and worse during peak hour (DfT, 2016). As a relatively cheap option, widespread 20mph zones would have many benefits, calming traffic but also making the overall environment safer for pedestrians and cyclists, encouraging greater uptake.
If you have an LCWIP, a useful exercise would be to consider all the roads within 2km of the core walking zones - how many of these could have their speed limit reduced? If you haven't got an LCWIP, consider a 2km radius of the high street. Within these large-scale zones, pedestrian and cycle only zones can then be considered - restricting access for motor vehicles at certain times (or at all times) to specific streets, or networks of streets, particularly town centres and high streets. The guidance identifies this latter step as a way to enable active travel but also social distancing in places where people are likely to gather.
[If you're a Cadence user, we'll even map potential zone boundaries and average peak hour speeds for you to enable this].
While it seems an obvious suggestion, there is a danger that authorities delay taking action in order to apply for funding. The truth is that the initial £250m will not go far if applied in the traditional way. The guidance instead focuses on ‘pop-up’ cycle facilities - flexible plastic wands or converting traffic lanes into temporary cycle lanes etc. Therefore a series of quick wins should be identified to address key network gaps, prioritised based on existing demand. Again, an LCWIP could help here, but many will also have interventions linked to future developments that won't be as important. Even without an LCWIP, some simple mapping will help identify the key areas to focus on. In most regions, a mapping of current cycle paths, alongside travel-to-work data and population density will reveal the priority gaps in the network. Strengthening these routes through targeted lane closures will help make cycling and walking journeys much more seamless and help maximise the number of people who can get to their final destination by active modes.
[If you're a Cadence user you can view OSM cycle data alongside you road network and simulate the impact of lane closures to prioritise the options that are least impactful, as per the above].
In dense urban areas, quiet routes can really help support social distancing, but also encourage people to walk and cycle more often. Filtered permeability can be particularly important helping people navigate onto more direct cycle routes, providing confidence for that critical first-mile or to access a segregated piece of infrastructure. Low traffic or traffic-free neighbourhoods can also be used to help join up the cycle network and could be an alternative to road or lane closures where the overall network permits it. But why not go even further? To help promote cycling and walking within the community, could you find ways for neighbourhoods to apply for their own filtered permeability schemes accelerating uptake across your region?
The guidance, to an extent, focuses on short-distance trips, but long-distance trips are also going to be critical as we emerge from lockdown. Certainly, encouraging more sustainable longer-distance trips will play a key role in addressing climate change in the future "new normal". Therefore, it makes sense to start thinking about this now. The guidance identifies the need to provide "additional cycle parking facilities at key locations, such as outside stations", but obviously is set against the context of an expectation of reduced capacity on public transport due to social distancing. Because of this background context, considering transport hubs is going to be highly complex, but it is also likely to be critical to embed long-term behaviour change.
Despite the measures for cycling and walking, there will be many people who still need to get into their cars to undertake at least part of their journey. Without considering these longer-distance patterns, the return to 'normality' could be in conflict with the desire to improve the city centre environment. Over the long-term, transport hubs (interchanging with public transport, bike share and other forms of mobility) are going to be key to providing sustainable options for the last mile. In the short-term however, we need to enable those returning to work to do so, while maintaining social distancing. In some cases therefore, there will be immediate conflicts between parking access and cycling/walking priority. Developing strategies that balance both short- and longer-term needs is likely to require a comprehensive review of land and parking options, but undertaking these as soon as possible is going to be essential to ensure the overall strategy is fully joined up.
Finally, it goes without saying that regional collaboration (e.g. across local authority boundaries or with local employers) is going to be essential to ensuring that both the first- and last-miles of cycling and walking trips are accomodated; that the full end-to-end journey experience is considered; and that employees have sufficient (and appropriate) information and support to understand changes to the road network and what they mean. To promote behaviour change, communications should also be joined up across regions. This can only be strengthened by working with employers who are also rigorously planning how to operate most effectively while maintaining social distancing. New forms of remote communications and training are also going to need to be considered. Finally, publishing changes to the network in digital formats will help other platforms disseminate the information for you and achieve the greatest levels of reach.
Overall, there is much to think about and an impetus to deliver measures as swiftly as possible. But the guidance provides a considerable opportunity to redefine how we travel and, over the longer-term transform the urban environment for the better.
By Laurence Oakes-Ash, CEO, City Science, first published on LinkedIn
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