A World Less Travelled
30 April 2020

A World Less Travelled

The response to Coronavirus has led to profound changes in the way we travel.

Across the world’s major cities, the number of daily journeys has fallen by 90% or more(1) with consequent improvements in air quality, and a reduction in traffic collisions and hospital A&E admissions(2). Public transport usage has dropped steeply, accompanied by a shutdown of many shared mobility schemes(3), but one of the most tangible changes is the number of people now walking and cycling, in an effort to boost their physical and mental wellbeing.

This mass outdoor gym has presented new challenges for governments planning for a post-Covid world, in which social (physical) distancing is likely to be the required norm. Concern for public health and the need for safe transport systems has pushed cities such as Auckland, Bogota, and New York to widen footways and expand cycle networks with breakneck speed. Some cities have closed residential streets to traffic, lowered speed limits and revised vehicle priorities at junctions. The scale and rapidity of this change is impressive: the City of Oakland, California has already closed 74 miles of its streets (10% of the city’s highway network) to through-traffic; and Berlin is trialling pop-up cycle lanes, laying down temporary yellow tape and using mobile traffic signs with instant impact(4).

Promoting active travel under normal circumstances is a long-term game. However, new SYSTRA research into the transport impact of the government’s recent travel restrictions, reveals that of those walking or cycling more for leisure/exercise (36% and 9% respectively) four in five people expect to continue this change. One in five people expect to use public transport less once restrictions are lifted, and whilst ‘fear of getting ill’ is the main reason given, one in seven people say it is because they have found a new way to travel.

This last statistic is significant. Proponents of travel behaviour change know that moments of significant lifestyle change (others include changing school, moving house, or taking up a new job) are important trigger points.

It generally takes ten weeks to form a new habit(5). As transport planners we need to react to this opportunity quickly and implement changes to the streetscape which offer safe and discernible improvements. We all know that one poor experience - a near miss on a bike or a late train - can quickly cause a person to revert. Just as the oil crisis forced the Netherlands to plan for cycling in the 1970’s, this crisis now offers us the opportunity to implement widescale active travel interventions, but this time we are helped by the fact that road traffic is currently down by 73%(6).

Coronavirus has shown what can be achieved when nations face a common crisis and act as one. Addressing climate change will require the same collective response. There is building evidence that the public will support the lifestyle changes which are required - a recent poll shows that 48% of people want a response to Climate Change with the same urgency as has been taken for Coronavirus, with just 28% against(7). Strong political leadership, bold policy-making and tangible safety improvements are now required.

SYSTRA has experience of network planning, infrastructure design and devising communications to help make this happen.

[1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52103747]

[2 https://qz.com/1822492/traffic-accidents-are-plummeting-because-of-the-pandemic/]

[3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/davekeating/2020/03/23/cities-with-coronavirus-see-transport-options-disappear/#72822c1d7ec0]

[4 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/world-cities-turn-their-streets-over-to-walkers-and-cyclists]

[5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/]

[6 https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/03/uk-road-travel-falls-to-1955-levels-as-covid-19-lockdown-takes-hold-coronavirus-traffic]

[7 https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/coronavirus-climate-crisis-uk-government-poll-environment-a9467371.html]

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