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Retaining lockdown’s benefits in the economic recovery

Tony Bolden Littlehampton, West Sussex BN16
01 June 2020

Covid-19 has been a real shock to our way of lives. But it has also provided us with a real-life demonstration of living within a net zero carbon based economy. It has:

improved air quality; lifted light pollution; halved carbon dioxide emissions; reduced travel, particularly by public transport and by cars; encouraged more walking and cycling; cut road accidents and fatalities; and enabled birdsong to be heard above traffic noise

Inevitably, there have been downsides. The economy is forecast by the Bank of England to shrink by 14 per cent in 2020. Its recovery remains uncertain. Jobs and disposable incomes are at risk with unemployment rising substantially. Social distancing and interaction is likely to last for the rest of 2020 if not beyond into 2021. Deaths over normal levels are rising significantly 

Nonetheless, the aftermath to Covid-19 does provide an opportunity to change our economic, environmental and social structures. International research has shown that if we want to achieve a zero carbon based economy by 2050 then the changes brought about by the pandemic to travelling habits have to continue at the same rate of change if we are to succeed. Initial indications are not good as China’s economy reverts to previous practices with the return of congestion and air pollution.

Change, however, will not be achieved by lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing. Inevitably people will want to travel, meet and visit. So other measures must be put into place if we want to get the economy moving upwards again. Even so, we do not want to revert back to pre-Covid conditions: health and well-being are as important as our economy and wealth. Whilst that is not meant to sound like an either/or valuation, it would suggest that the mechanisms, appraisal techniques and policy judgments in the future have to become more rounded as a result of peoples’ experiences of Covid-19.

Covid-19 has shown what can be achieved by not travelling, so how can we achieve some coherent basis for travelling and yet, at the same time, maintain health, well-being and environmental benefits?

Transport is caught very much in the middle. There could be a positive or negative response. Initial reactions to the aftermath of Covid-19 are not encouraging with public transport use being discouraged. Whilst one understands the problems with social distancing, the use of buses, trains and trams must be a key part of the future, particularly in urban settings. 

Congestion charging, workplace levies, parking restrictions, clean air zones, shared spaces, and tree-lined streets must stay and be supplemented. 

Nor can transport changes resolve matters by themselves as changing spatial and technological dimensions must be part of the solution: more home working, more flexible working time arrangements, video conferencing, home deliveries and integrated, and flexible travelcards to cite just a few examples. Rigid time-based season tickets could be replaced by loyalty cards that are more attuned to modern day working practices. 

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Oxfordshire County Council
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