Increasing active travel in the capital

Cllr Claire Holland, chair of London Councils' Transport and Environment Committee, outlines the current ‘golden opportunity' to encourage more people to walk and cycle

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began, London boroughs were aware of the growing challenge of the climate emergency. It was clear that in order to truly tackle this vast issue, boroughs would have to take strong, bold action alongside the government and other local, national and global stakeholders, in order to decrease carbon emissions and make London a healthier, safer place for all our residents for years to come.

In the midst of the pandemic, climate change remained on London boroughs’ agenda. The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating for London in so many ways, but it has also yielded some environmental benefits.

Due to lockdown, there were fewer cars on the road, improved air quality and a surge in active travel as more people used walking and cycling as a way to get around while following public health guidance.

Many boroughs stepped up to the challenges presented by the dramatic decrease in public transport use and capacity, and the increased demand for active travel, by introducing emergency measures to support people who needed to walk or cycle for essential journeys. These measures have continued and expanded to meet demand for alternative travel options that people may not have chosen pre-pandemic.

So far, boroughs have transformed public spaces to make it safer for larger numbers of people to walk and cycle, including pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and bus or cycle only corridors. Working with TfL’s Streetspace programme has also increased the capacity for boroughs to transform to provide active travel options.

These innovations mean that not only are there more active travel options, but there is also more space for social distancing. In addition to this, there are health benefits enjoyed by those people who choose to walk or cycle to complete their journeys. And supports a local economic recovery in the most challenging of times,

Alongside this, boroughs are supporting the shift to electric vehicles. Government announced earlier this year that petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2035 to enable the UK to achieve its target of emitting virtually zero carbon by 2050. Boroughs are working with partners to install more electric vehicle charging points - from slow overnight chargers to rapid charging points that can charge up a vehicle in half an hour - to make this shift as easy as possible for those who need to drive in the capital.   

Coronavirus has created a ‘new normal’ - the pandemic looks likely to have a long legacy. More people are working from home than before, and most are not expecting an immediate or full-time return to the office. We have also seen an increase in road traffic congestion, particularly in outer London, as more people use their cars after lockdown because it feels safer than public transport. According to data from the Waze for Cities programme, congestion has increased to nearly a fifth on average above last year. These concerning numbers highlight the immediate need for other modes of transport to share the load, particularly active travel for those making shorter journeys.

In June, a poll by Centre for London, funded by London Environment Directors’ Network (LEDNet), showed that the majority of Londoners supported permanent pavement widening and the provision of new cycle lanes or wider cycle lanes. Around a third of Londoners also said they would cycle more after lockdown, with 46 per cent stating they would increase walking, running and cycling altogether.

Amidst the devastation and stress of the pandemic, Londoners are spending more time outdoors, valuing the cleaner air and time spent in green spaces. We have seen that individuals, communities and businesses are willing to and capable of adapting their behaviour to protect public health from coronavirus.

Polling has shown that two thirds of Britons believe that climate change is as serious as coronavirus, and the majority of them want to see climate change prioritised in the economic recovery. Not only would the increase in walking, running and cycling benefit London’s environmental recovery but it hugely improves the health of the individual, both physical and mentally.  

However, we are also aware that the introduction of wider cycle lanes, low traffic neighbourhoods and similar schemes have not been well received by all Londoners who some voice concerns with regards to increased journey times for example.

Local authorities constantly balance different priorities to make sure they are listening to everyone locally. This situation is no different. Boroughs are working closely with local stakeholders, taking into account varied points of view and monitoring the situation so they can check whether new traffic schemes are having the desired overall impact, making adjustments where needed.

We know that it will not be enough for boroughs to act in isolation. Local authorities are by no means the only organisation responsible for delivering a long-term climate change response. There needs to be work done on other fronts too, bringing together a wide variety of partners in local communities, in order to have a sustained and lasting effect.

Government must play a leading role, setting a positive, empowering precedent for us all, using the powers and resources at its disposal to drive change. Business leaders also have a responsibility to recognise the climate emergency and mitigate their impact on the environment. That is why London boroughs are committed to working with partners along with local communities to ensure that active travel continues to be a viable option as part of the overall climate response.

By focusing on a recovery from Covid-19 which prioritises active travel across the capital wherever possible, London could reduce the number of vehicles on the road, achieving lower emissions and congestion rates, and ultimately making our capital a safer, greener city to live in.  

Nobody wants to see the climate emergency progress to an advanced stage, leaving us powerless to act.

London boroughs are seizing this opportunity to innovate and provide better and safer active travel options for residents. We must be ambitious and aim to build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic, investing in a low and zero carbon economy, a thriving and healthy natural environment and resilient communities. 

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