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Local authorities share how they are responding

Juliana O’Rourke
01 June 2020

Local authorities have, in recent weeks, been responding to calls for action regarding street and road space transformations in the light of the pandemic restrictions and changes in traffic levels and travel behaviour. LTT’s online discussion last week heard that, despite some lack of clarity in government guidance, and obvious budget and resource constraints, a number of authorities have been innovating quickly with pop up measures. Most, however, are already aware that more practical and aesthetically pleasing solutions – and therefore more acceptable to the wider public – will need to follow as the response matures. Another part of the package will be measures to promote behaviour change and tackle inactive lifestyles, obesity, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The vision is to bring about a permanent improvement in how traffic is managed in urban areas, creating safer and more attractive places for people. 

So while initial measures included creating more space for cycling and widening pavements, traffic-management schemes are now supporting road closures, parking bay suspensions and changing car parking layouts. They are looking at creating ‘school streets’, pedestrianising high-streets streets, introducing one-way traffic and separate entry and exit routes in shops to support queuing and help keep citizens healthy and safe. 

Mark Frost, Assistant Director for Transport, Parking & Environmental Strategy at the London Borough of Hounslow, explained how Hounslow is rolling out schemes in phases, first using cones to widen footways, reallocate road space and better facilitate social distancing for walking. It is also extending bus lane hours to 24/7 where possible, and accelerating planned cycle and pedestrian schemes. Phase two schemes include permanent ‘school street’ closures before September, with a further six beginning consultation in the autumn. Consultation, he notes is a key issue with ‘very little consensus’ on some interventions. ‘It becomes quite difficult if you don’t bring the community along with you, and I think that’s a real challenge for the profession.’ He also mentioned that ‘we’re expected to do more than we’ve ever done in a shorter time frame, but with less money.’

We’re also thinking about our wider policy response, with a focus on emissions-based charges for business and resident parking permits – including an option to restrict permits for the most polluting vehicles and an exploration around means-testing some permits. While a Workplace Parking Levy has been delayed by a year, bringing in a phased WPL could help prevent a car-focused recovery by dis-incentivising car use and funding shorter term walking, cycling and air quality measures he added. ‘Respiratory health and the role of active travel are now more important than ever after COVID-19,’ said Frost. 

Andy Salkeld, Walking and Cycling Officer for Leicester City Council, said that his city is planning to install at least a mile of new pop-up cycling and walking lanes every week for the next 10 weeks. Pavements will also be widened to help support local shops and to provide safer walking areas, and a bike share scheme will be introduced across the city. What we’re doing immediately is helping key people to get work and so help the rest of us, said Salkeld. He responded to a question, put by audience member Paul Biggs from the Alliance of British Drivers, asking whether rapidly re-allocating road space without consultation was ‘democratic or anti-democratic’. ‘The first rule of government is to protect citizens. In Leicester about 40% of households and 66% of people do not have access to a car, so it would be remiss of us, at a time like this, not to respond to citizens’ needs,’ he replied.

Leicester’s plan involves reallocating road space around retail shopping streets, taking out suspended parking using the space for queuing. Selected key route road space is also being re-allocated (see image below), primarily to cyclists and, in some cases, away from buses. Although the number of bus passengers has collapsed significantly, the city is maintaining access to bus stops and continuing to support public transport. The city is planning for more permanent solutions by aligning current rapid responses with the long-term Connecting Leicester project, with the deputy City Mayor acknowledging that it will be difficult to reverse these new measures if they prove, as hoped, to be popular with the public.

London Living Streets’ David Harrison outlined London’s plans, outlining the roles of Transport for London (TfL) and the boroughs, and emphasising the key role walking will play in the post-Covid world. TfL has established a Streetspace strategy to help people walk and cycle wherever possible. The project includes:

  • Quickly building a strategic cycling network, using temporary materials to help reduce crowding on public transport
  • Changing town centres so local journeys can be more safely walked and cycled, for example with wider pavements
  • Reducing traffic on residential streets, creating low-traffic corridors and neighbourhoods right across London so more people can safely walk and cycle

There are also plans for automatic ‘no touch’ green men for pedestrians, wider crossings and the removal of guard railings to prevent bunching, but progress has been slow. 

Boroughs control the great majority of London’s streets, and are developing plans with TfL. Particularly exciting are proposals for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, where motor traffic can access homes, but cannot drive through and so more people can safely walk and cycle. These have been pioneered very effectively in Waltham Forest and are included in many borough’s transport strategies, but are now to be introduced on a wide scale and speedily in many councils. It is claimed that using temporary materials, these could delivered for as little as £100,000 each. 

Some of the biggest changes will be in central London where walking will assume even more importance. Roads and bridges are to be closed to motor traffic for periods of the day. London Living Streets, supported by TfL, has produced a Central London Walking Network plan https://londonlivingstreets.com/central-london-walking-network/ to assist the thousands of people walking in and into central London as the lockdown eases.

Ruby Stringer from consultants ITP spoke more widely on the opportunities and challenges presented by the current situation. She mentioned the dangers of rising car use as public transport use declines in response to the virus, and social distancing measures, and higher traffic speeds post lockdown. But it’s locking in longer term change that is important, said Stringer: ‘We know that people are most likely to change their habits during periods of change. For most people, this will be the greatest period of change they ever experience, so we must be working right now to ensure that we achieve the most positive outcomes we possibly can. This must involve thinking about infrastructure, but also beyond this to behaviour change initiatives, communication strategies and parking approaches, to name but a few.’ 

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