An historic opportunity we cannot afford to miss

Cycling London: Photo by Geraint Rowland
Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 22nd May 2020 by Dr Ashok Sinha.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard how wonderful it is to hear birdsong again. It is indeed. But how many of us realise that songbird populations have been in serious decline for decades, due to our despoliation of their habitats? If society returns to business-as-usual after the Covid-19 crisis, including roaring, traffic-choked streets, we won’t even notice when the last songbird has gone.

Melodramatic, maybe. But no-one should be under the illusion that bringing the Coronavirus under control – if that’s all we do – will bring a return to full health. We would simply return to toxic air, a chronic public health crisis caused by inactivity and, above all else, the ecological and climate emergencies. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the current pandemic, like the spread of other zoonotic infections before it like Nipah and Ebola, was made more likely by humanity’ destruction of ecosystems. A return to the status quo ante cannot be allowed for all sorts of interconnected reasons.

The motor car is a fabulous tool, bringing mobility and load carrying benefits to many. But our pre-lockdown, car-sick urban centres were both a material and symbolic manifestation of how we’ve got things so very wrong. Conversely, the large number of people taking to their cycles because of the current quietness of our streets – walking or cycling for exercise with their families, delivering food parcels and medicines by cycle, commuting or making other essential journeys by bike – is a parable for how we can make things right.

Just as Covid-19 hit the UK, the London Cycling Campaign published our Climate Safe Streets report. Intended to kick start our campaign around the now postponed London Mayoral election, it lays out how we can and must decarbonise London’s roads by 2030. Central to this is massively expanding the capital’s network of protected cycle lanes, expediting the rollout of smart road user charging, and creating a new partnership between the private sector and local authorities to open up the market for shared micromobility and car services. And now, witnessing how effective and attractive homeworking is for many (if not everyone), we can add that the case for investing in UK-wide high bandwidth digital infrastructure to reduce travel demand has never been greater. Plus, this is also a social justice issue: with social distancing restrictions on public transport and fares rising in London due to the conditions attached to TfL’s bailout from the DfT, the obstacles to people choosing the cheap and convenient option of cycling must be removed. It’s only fair.

We have long had the tools to make low motor traffic levels an enduring reality – with multiple benefits that go with it. But the real, and most exciting point, is that there now may be enough public and business appetite for this to happen.

I’m aware of the dangers of rose-tinted spectacles. After the tragedies and duress of the pandemic it will only be natural to want a return to business-as-usual. With stratospheric levels of public debt and the country in recession, it is surely only a matter of time before the Government unleashes an economic stimulus. Its choice is clear: pump prime a return to the previous, polluted, unhealthy reality or – as many governments have already decided – or pursue a green and fair recovery.

In the case of transport in London, that means taming the car more than anything else. The challenge is enormous, but this is a once in hundred year opportunity for radical change. We must grasp it with both hands.

About the Author

This post was written by Dr Ashok Sinha. Ashok if the Chief Executive of the London Cycling Campaign.