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Coronavirus: What future for sustainable transport?

Updated 26 June 2020 to reflect changes in social distancing rules.

How can we reconcile investment in sustainable transport with the steps we need to take to fight Coronavirus? People are currently being discouraged from using public transport due to the Coronavirus emergency. What effects will this have on future local transport investment?

This is a difficult time for a rail campaign group. Tim Weekes looks at some of the issues.

Public transport hit hard

FoSBR promotes sustainable transport. We campaign for rail, which is the indispensable core of a sustainable transport system, but we recognise that properly integrated walking, cycling and bus services are also vital.

Public transport is the most space- and energy-efficient way to move large numbers of people, but to use it people have to share relatively confined spaces. Airborne viruses can spread quickly in this environment, and so we are currently advised to avoid it if we can. The only effective measure against Covid-19 is currently social distancing, which means that as we start to ease restrictions public transport will work at reduced capacity.

Social distancing: How far apart?

With 2m social distancing measures in place, trains were running 80% empty. From 4th July 2020 this rule will be relaxed to ‘1 metre plus’, which together with the requirement for all passengers to wear face masks will allow more capacity to be used. At the time of writing it is unclear how many passengers can be carried under the new rules, but 50% capacity is a fair assumption.

Active travel

In the meantime the safest alternatives are to get around on foot, by bicycle, or by private car. The government is focusing on active travel – walking and cycling – and has asked local authorities to reallocate road space temporarily so that this can be encouraged. But it is also encouraging people to travel by car rather than risk using public transport. It is hard to see how this can be reconciled if the number of people travelling starts to approach pre-Coronavirus levels.

In the immediate future, most transport infrastructure schemes that already have funding will go ahead, albeit delayed by social distancing measures and the lock-down. Looking further ahead, it is hard to know how the government will respond to the huge debt that is building up as the economy slumbers in a medically-induced coma. Will it try to save money by cutting back on expensive infrastructure projects, or will it see them as a way to lead economic recovery?

No going back?

Picture of bicycle with slogan 'No going back'
Picture of bicycle with slogan ‘No going back’

There is much that we do not understand about Coronavirus. We don’t know why it has a worse effect on men than on women. We don’t know why it is more deadly for old people. We don’t know why it kills more black and Asian people than white people. But we do know why people in areas with high levels of air pollution have been hit hardest: polluted air causes many of the underlying health problems that make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. Much of that air pollution comes from motor traffic.

Since the lock-downs started, in cities all over the world people have learnt what clean air tastes, smells and looks like. They’ve also experienced streets where walking and cycling is safe and pleasant. It has opened many people’s eyes to the possibility of a future where cities are much better places to live. People have also had their eyes opened to new ways of doing things, which reduce the need to travel. Even the most ardent technophobes have become experts in using Zoom teleconferencing, and businesses have seen that many workers can do their jobs effectively from home.

This too shall pass

One way or another, we will adapt to Coronavirus and some sort of normality will return. Theatres, arenas, restaurants, pubs, schools, hairdressers, stadiums and workplaces will eventually reopen, and people will need a way to get to them.

No doubt some will lobby to make more room for private cars, seeing them as a ‘safe’ way to get around. This cannot be reconciled with the need to allow other road users the social distance they need. In a time of economic stringency, the financial (and political) cost of adapting cities to accommodate more cars will surely rule it out.

Others will argue that many of the objections to private cars are solved by electric power. Electric cars are better than internal combustion vehicles, but they still require a disproportionate amount of road space and they still produce PM2.5 pollution from their tyres. They are not the solution.

We welcome the shift to active travel. FoSBR will campaign to ensure that cycling and walking is integrated with rail. We will also continue to campaign for the phasing out of diesel powered trains, replacing them with clean electric power.

As rail campaigners, much of what we were campaigning for before Coronavirus seems to be ‘on hold’. But the arguments for sustainable transport are not weakened by Covid-19; if anything they are strengthened because it is the only way to maintain the air quality we have become used to in recent months.

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