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Virus favours one mode – and politicians should cater for it

Roger Davies, Kendal LA9
07 August 2020

A leading retail leader has said that the virus has speeded up what was already underway in the retail sector. Things will not go back to the way they were. In my own case, in the space of four months we have moved from shopping every few days, to never needing to visit a shop again. And we won’t.

The same speeding up is true in business: employers are finding out the benefits of home and remote working. As one employer put it “Why should I pay central London rents just so my staff can buy lunch at Pret a Manger?” Even those who need staff together for cohesion are not contemplating much more than getting everyone together every two weeks or so.

The key point for employees is doing an eight-hour day in eight, not 12 hours, and not wasting money on designer sandwiches and overpriced glasses of wine. It simply isn’t true that people are keen to get back to workplaces – all dread the commute and those already back are finding restrictions, such as the wearing of protective clothing and the obligation to enforce new rules, not only demanding but oppressive and mentally draining.

It is not true that in order to get the economy going people have to go back to offices. The economy didn’t stop, it changed dramatically and will continue to do so. Some sectors have boomed: delivery vehicles are keeping us and our supermarkets stocked. 

It’s not just home delivery vehicles. Many of those providing vital services such as electricity, internet, and road repairs now have to provide a van each for staff, as social distancing won’t allow for small vehicles to be shared. 

The roads need to be kept clear for these vital lifeline services that are keeping us going, to say nothing of emergency services. They cannot be cluttered up by silly nonsense such as ‘pop-up’ bike lanes. 

Cycling is not the solution, it is not inclusive and accessible to all in the way buses and cars are. It is very wrong to draw conclusions during long days of good weather. What will the picture look like on a frosty, dark, freezing day in February? 

Sadly, the UK picture of cycling is not the one favoured by its proponents of well-ordered cycling on sensible bikes seen in places such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Far too many riders in the UK are ‘Formula 1 petrolhead cyclists’, racing around on high performance machines wearing their fitbits and seeking to break their and others’ records. They are not active, green travellers, they are undertaking sport on the public highway and that should be curbed. 

The more extreme elements in the cycling community even seriously suggest British rule of law should be upended and drivers assumed guilty until proven innocent in the event of an accident. 

As for e-scooters, from my own bitter experience as a pedestrian, any council authorising these things needs a sanity check.

Where does all this leave public transport? Not in a good place. Buses being more attuned to local travel needs must have a role but just where is any future role for the railways as we know them? 

Long-distance travel, always a tiny part of the business, has collapsed for ever. Business folk have realised they don’t need to spend five hours on a train just for a two-hour meeting in London and won’t do it again. Our leisure habits are changing dramatically, all in ways that favour car travel. 

And yet the show pony of the obscene HS2 prances on unhindered, the day of reckoning for this dreadful project must come soon.

In 1978 I attended a talk on Crossrail when the speaker claimed it was good to go and only needed the green light. Forty-two years later, it still isn’t finished and nobody knows when it will be. The Paris RER lines it is modelled on were built in the 1960s and 70s, as were the French and Japanese high-speed trains that HS2 seeks to emulate. 

What other industry promotes 50 and 60-year old technology, other than one that is 19th century technology itself?

Commuter trains are overwhelmingly the major part of the railway business. As commuting changes and people flee the cities, the need for this product changes seismically. We cannot afford to keep running mainly empty trains about the place to mainly empty stations. If the Prime Minister wants to attack obesity he should start with the obesity of railway funding.

The hard fact of the matter is that 22 March 2020 is as much part of history as Agincourt.

In the ensuing months people have adapted and adjusted and personal safety and health are becoming ever more paramount. For many people only the car can achieve this and the sooner we accept the reality of this and start accommodating rather than demonising cars the sooner we will be able to live with how life now is.

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