The lockdown has shown us what a traffic and pollution-free environment could look and feel like. It has given us a glimpse of the improved world Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and others were advocating long before the crisis. Let’s now all work together creatively and positively to turn the Covid disaster into a pivotal opportunity to build a healthy future for our city, our children and grandchildren.
The danger is that once the lockdown is lifted there will be a dramatic increase in single-passenger car use as we all return to work avoiding public transport due to concerns about social distancing. And some negative trends have already emerged from the crisis. Public transport usage has fallen dramatically. At the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, NHS staff have been given free parking which has encouraged car use. On the positive side, a recent AA-Populus poll of nearly 20,000 drivers asking them what their post-Covid transport plans were revealed that:
- 51% will drive as before
- 36% will walk/cycle/run more
- 22% will drive less (increasing to 24% of those over 65)
- 1% will drive more
We need to take control of these transition options and use them as an opportunity to build a better future. Let’s look at what other cities are planning.
In Milan, one of Europe’s most polluted cities and hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, 22 miles of city streets will be made more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists in the coming months, as the city begins a major project to transform roads in the city centre. The ambitious Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan aims to reallocate street space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists, making it safer and easier for people to leave their vehicles at home once lockdown is lifted. Milan transport authorities say metro services in the city will run at 30% capacity in order to allow social distancing. So instead of transporting the usual 1.4 million passengers per day, the Milan metro will only be able to carry 400,000 people daily. Anticipating a resultant spike in car traffic, the city is looking at a range of options to encourage two-wheeled transport.
In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is pursuing a pre-Covid “100% cyclable streets” programme to be achieved by 2024.
In Padova, Italy, the creation of a delivery consolidation and co-ordination service (also pre-Covid) has led to the reduction of 1,216 km per day of inner-city deliveries.
In Colombia, Bogotá is pursuing a creative alternative to trains and buses. Mayor Claudia Lopez announced that the city’s open streets day route, the world-famous Ciclovía, normally held only on Sundays, will be closed to cars and opened to cyclists and pedestrians during weekdays too. More than 76 kilometres (47 miles) of street closures will now take effect each weekday to give people alternatives to commuting through the public transit system. The temporary new cycling routes add to the city’s 500 kilometres (310 miles) of permanent bike lanes.
New Zealand is funding "pop-up" solutions, or tactical urbanism projects, as part of government policy to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety amid in response to the pandemic. Transportation Minister Julie Anne Genter has called on cities to apply for 90% funding to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists with wider sidewalks and temporary bike lanes.
San Diego is introducing a “Slow Streets” pilot programme to repurpose public streets, exclude cars, create more outdoor space and encourage safe walking and cycling while still following public health rules for physical distancing.
Closer to home in the UK, Brighton has made part of its seafront Madeira Drive open only to pedestrians and cyclists from 8am to 8pm. Prior to the lockdown, Birmingham published a transport plan that will limit access for private cars access and ban through-trips. Commercial vehicles will still be permitted to enter the city centre but restrictions will apply. Walking and cycling will be given priority in the city centre. Scotland has set up a £10 million ‘Spaces for People’ fund for temporary infrastructure for active travel – giving local authorities 100% funding to set up temporary schemes such as widened pavements and pop-up cycle lanes.
Let’s focus on a set of realistic achievable measures that we can plan NOW in Greater Cambridge for rapid implementation post-lockdown.
- Declare a carbon-free zone in central Cambridge: This will require very little actual investment. All it needs is for politicians, city officials, advocacy groups and citizens to put their heads together and agree on zone parameters and regulation, including the timelines for local residents and businesses to convert to carbon-free transport modes. This could be combined with a congestion charge.
- Bus routes into the city to terminate at transport nodes on the outskirts of the inner zone and bus operators provide electric mini-bus shuttle services from these to the centre. This would be far better utilisation of investment in electric buses than the empty double-decker dinosaurs that are currently being paraded as a green transport solution. Bike share and other micromobility operators can also provide onward services from these nodes. Some of these nodes could be close enough to the city centre to encourage walking of “the last mile”, thus encouraging exercise – especially if the routes are car-free and surrounded by trees, plants, flowers and grass. This model could integrate with Smarter Cambridge Transport’s proposals for a ring-and-spoke bus system for the city – see https://www.smartertransport.uk/cambridge-city-bus-hub/
- Convert city car parking garages to bike, other micromobility vehicle, and e-car parking only, with effective 24/7 security monitoring. All garages to provide space for bike share and other shared micromobility operators. Lost parking fees could be replaced by revenue from a congestion charge.
- Identify cycling infrastructure quick wins that can be rapidly planned, funded and implemented. In a report on Cambridge transport two years ago, the National Infrastructure Commission identified two of these: The Mere Way Roman Road path from Butt Lane/Milton Rd under the A14 to Cambridge Regional College; and the bridleway from Coton to a point just south of Cambourne. The first has been included as part of the Waterbeach New Town development but needs to be fast-tracked with public support. The second has been bogged down in the Cambourne busway proposals and should be reconsidered as a separate fast-track project.
- Before next winter let’s resolve to fix the stretch of the Busway cycleway at Fen Drayton Lakes that floods every year in heavy rains, rendering the path impassable. Surely the engineering brains of our universities could devise a cost-effective plan to mitigate a flooding level of less than a meter!
- And at the same time, let’s work out a simple way to create additional new connections to the busway like a link from the Windmill Bridge on the Longstanton-Over road. Youngsters can lug their bikes up and down the slope but that that excludes access by oldies like me.
- Highways England has included magnificent non-motorised vehicle paths alongside the A14 stretching all the way from Fenstanton. But local authorities have no plans in place to connect villages along the way to this new cycle route into west Cambridge. (Apart from Dry Drayton parish council which has lobbied successfully for a link, demonstrating what local initiative and effort can achieve.)
- Quality bike share and pedicab services to be given facilities at central station. Taxi operators fought off the UK’s first ever pedicab service from here in the 90s. Now’s the time to bring these back. Electric power makes them even more viable. Even electric taxis need to be questioned in high foot traffic areas like the station due to the high level of particulate emissions from e-cars – as well as their upstream resource consumption and carbon footprint. Improved bus services from the station could also help reduce taxi traffic. Vested interests and lack of public ownership of the station area will stand in the way. Only bold leadership and action will overcome these hurdles.
- Day-time deliveries in the central carbon-free zone must progressively be by e-cargo bikes and small e-vans. Cambridge is home to Zedify, one of the UK’s e-cargo pioneers. They have the expertise and capacity to provide a service for the entire city. Regulation that stops fossil fuel deliveries, and requires consolidation to avoid multiple deliveries on the same route by different operators will boost e-cargo operators, drive down per unit costs and stimulate mass adoption by courier and freight operators.
- Create a network of smart multi-purpose cycle hubs around the city, including at Park & Rides and travel hubs, with bike lockers accessed via a mobile app for whatever period of time needed, battery-charging lockers and secure storage space for bike share operators.
This is just my “Top 10” list of ideas for discussion. A key lesson from the Covid crisis is that we should not leave planning of our futures to our politicians, their advisors and bureaucrats. Constant monitoring, debating and strategizing is needed to provide creative, future-proof planning at local, regional, national and international levels. We should start in Cambridge by forming a public-private sector Transport Task Force which includes representatives from all levels of local government, transport operators, advocacy groups like CamCycle, Smarter Cambridge Transport, Cambridge Climate Emergency, Carbon Neutral Cambridge, Extinction Rebellion and others, private sector bodies like Cambridge Ahead, Cambridge Network, Chambers of Commerce and BID, the universities, and youth groups like Cambridge Schools Eco Council. CamCycle’s current Spaces to Breathe campaign will have generated valuable ideas that can feed into this process. And the transport recommendations of last year’s Citizens’ Assembly should be a starting point so we can build on work already done. The city’s tech-savvy could form a civic hacker force to use the Polis consensus-building platform to create a vCambridge process along the lines of vTaiwan.
Of course other sectors and issues need similar input, but let’s make a start with transport.
This body could become a clearing house for open discussion, building consensus and prioritisation of ideas and projects, formulating a clear transport strategy that sets short-, medium- and long-term projects. Mega billion-pound prestige projects will have to be put on hold post-Covid and practical cost-effective measures given priority.