Months of lockdown have cleaned our planet: let’s keep it that way

Photo: Nick Davies on Unsplash
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Can we make something really positive out of the global tragedy of Covid-19?

We are in a climate emergency. We have to make big cuts in our carbon emissions. Transport powered by fossil fuel is a massive contributor to an individual’s carbon footprint.

During the lockdown, largely thanks to car use plummeting, our air was cleaner: asthma sufferers breathed more easily, and with virtually no traffic noise we became more aware of birdsong in our newly-peaceful towns and cities. Walkers, runners, cyclists and wheelchair users were able to get around safely, while ambulances and other emergency vehicles were able to move unimpeded.

Must we now return to our old ways? Or can we, with these benefits still fresh in our minds, take the opportunity to rethink transport?

Traffic levels are building up again, but measures are being put in place all over the world to encourage active travel. Many governments recognise that if there is a mass return to driving or worse, an increase over pre Covid-19 levels of car use, we are heading not just to a return of toxic pollution and noise, but to gridlock. Urgency is increased by research at Harvard University led by Professor Francesca Dominici, finding that exposure to tiny particulates known as PM 2.5 is associated with a higher death rate from Covid-19. Road vehicles are an important source of these particulates.

A number of European countries have for decades been well ahead of the UK in encouraging active travel. Germany, the Nordic countries, the Netherlands have long had efficient public transport systems and extensive networks of cyclepaths. To enable the distancing now required, pedestrian and cycling space in northern European towns and cities is being increased.

Elsewhere in Europe action is being taken: Milan is making 35 kms of city streets more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, taking space from motorists. In Paris €300 million are being spent on 680kms of cycleways to relieve the most congested public transport routes. London is similarly providing cycleways to mirror underground routes. Manchester wants to create 150 miles of protected cyclepaths.

The UK government is investing in active travel nationwide.

The Cycle to Work scheme was established before the Covid crisis hit. This allows employers to effectively hire bikes and equipment to employees as a tax free benefit. A small salary deduction is made. The employee has the option to keep the bike at the end of the hire period, having saved on the costs and spread the payment.

More recently the government have brought in the Fix Your Bike voucher scheme. Vouchers worth up to £50 can be used at participating shops and workshops to repair an unused bike. The first batch of vouchers was snapped up quickly, but more are to be made available on the Energy Saving Trust website. Two per household are allowed.

A £2 billion package for cycling and walking has been pledged, with the first £250 million earmarked for protected cycle space, safer junctions, cycle and bus only corridors and the closure of some side streets to through traffic to provide safer neighbourhoods. Some of these measures are currently temporary, with ongoing consultation of residents on the changes. The South-West’s share is £14 million.

In common with other urban areas, Bath is temporarily widening pavements and footpaths and closing some city-centre roads to motor traffic, to give pedestrians and cyclists more space.

This is good news, but to protect the climate and our health we need to go further and make these measures permanent.

Forty years ago a young politician in the Dutch city of Groningen, Max van den Berg, pushed for a radical rethink of traffic management in the city. It was an age when motorists still expected to be able to drive everywhere and not to be delayed, and there was a plan to drive a motorway through an old neighbourhood in the centre of Groningen.

Van den Berg came up with a counter plan to encourage cycling and walking. The city centre would be divided into four sections. Judicious use of a one-way system would make it impossible to drive from one section to another without resorting to the ring road. Thus, driving would remain possible but time-consuming.

At the same time, new cycle lanes would make it quick, easy and safe to get round the city by bike. There was a lot of anger at first, especially from shopkeepers, who demonstrated and petitioned. But the plans went ahead. Today about two-thirds of all journeys in the city are made by bike, trees have been planted in the centre, the old Vismarkt – which had become a de facto car park – is a market again, the shopkeepers are happy and Groningen boasts the cleanest air of any Dutch city.

Using Groningen as a model, can we transform urban areas in our region?

Much of west England is hilly, but to some extent this problem can be dealt with by using e-bikes, bike hire schemes with various collection and drop-off points to allow one-way trips, and buses with bike racks. We also need a considered mix of pedestrian only as well as mixed cycling and pedestrian routes, so that pedestrians can feel safe.

For some people a car or van is essential, and we need to make adequate provision for this. But for occasional need there are car clubs, hire cars and taxis. Can we leave behind the old notion that our own, motorised private transport is a necessity, and embrace a mix of active travel, less travel and public transport?

Such a change in thinking is a stretch perhaps, but not impossible: some of us can remember a time when people thought smoking was cool.

Hazel Pennington lives in Bath and has a longstanding interest in environmental matters