COVID-19: A life-changing moment

Rebecca Morley explores how COVID-19 will impact the way we travel in the UK

In just a matter of months, COVID-19 has changed a decade’s worth of habits, even our most entrenched ones. More and more people are turning to cycling for their commutes and exercise, prompting local authorities to install new infrastructure to enable safe cycling across the country.

At the recent Cycling Industries Europe virtual 2020 Summit, Karen Vancluysen, secretary general at Polis, emphasised the importance of the post-lockdown phase as we look to proactively address issues such as a fear of using public transport and a return to the private car as the ‘ultimate safety bubble’ to protect against COVID-19.

“Opportunities include at least partly keeping the redistributed space as we have it now or as cities are implementing it for the post-lockdown phase,” said Vancluysen. “And we could capitalise on this active travel experience and try to keep our air cleaner and not go back to the pollution we were facing there to extreme levels.

“We have to ensure that we come out of this crisis with a better and more sustainable ecosystem. But of course this will not come naturally or automatically, and as activities are gradually reopening we should not allow that recovery from this health crisis to be at the expense of tackling the climate crisis.”

According to behavioural change experts, life-changing moments are the best opportunities to make permanent changes in deeply rooted behavioural habits, such as mobility behaviour, added Vancluysen, for instance when you move house, have children or change jobs. “I would really like this crisis to be such a life-changing moment as well, to let people who have discovered cycling as recreation and as a way to be active continue to use the bicycle as a functional means of transport.

“We know that piloting is a way to go from temporary measures to more permanent measures, and we see they’re working well. I see a real opportunity here because people will already know what these measures feel like, they’re currently experiencing them in real life,” continued Vancluysen.

We’ll continue to see a challenging time for public transport with reduced capacity due to the health and safety measures, like social distancing. This is, therefore, an opportunity for shared bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters to take the pressure off and play their part in providing an alternative means of transport.

Silver lining
Phil Ellis, CEO of British micromobility provider Beryl, said that initially, the scheme saw a decline in usage, which is what it would expect on a per bike basis, but throughout the course of April and May saw thousands of new customers come onto bikes – witnessing the boom in cycling like the rest of the industry. In fact, Ellis said that overall Beryl is getting fewer journeys made on its bikes in total, but the journeys people are making are longer.

But what can we expect in the future? “I’m not complacent,” said Ellis, “there are lots of things that we’re going to have to continue to do. But I’m optimistic that out of all of the tragedy and hopelessness of this pandemic, we’ll have some positive outcomes associated with cycling, hopefully, in the long-term.”

“One of the silver linings of the horrific COVID-19 crisis has been that many people have really appreciated the clean air, the safe streets and the opportunity to take up cycling, either as key workers getting around to avoid public transport, or as individuals and families going out for local exercise,” said Roger Geffen, Cycling UK’s head of policy.

“Many people have bought bikes or revived bikes during this crisis. We have also seen unprecedented interest in cycling from national and local Government throughout the UK, with the Prime Minister and other ministers urging people to take up cycling.”

Cycling UK is working ‘flat out’ to capitalise on this window of opportunity, Geffen continued, to get as many pop-up cycle lanes built as possible and to enable people of all ages and abilities to take up cycling through Bike Week, the Big Bike Revival and other initiatives. “We need to ensure that our exit route from the COVID-19 crisis also helps us tackle the congestion crisis, the pollution crisis, the inactivity-related health crisis and the climate crisis that were there all along.”

Rachel White, head of public affairs at Sustrans, said: “As we look towards life after lockdown, it is clear that the need for physical distancing will be necessary for some time to come, and this will have a direct impact on the way we move around our towns and cities.

“Public transport is vital but is currently running at reduced capacity, and walking and cycling are an essential part of the UK’s resistance to the crisis. However, this has highlighted the lack of space in some areas to ensure people can move around in the safest, and healthiest possible way.”

A new era
Back in May, Cycling UK identified 100 streets in ten cities which would allow millions of commuters to cycle to work separated from traffic, while maintaining social distancing. The charity called on the Government to support and encourage local authorities to install temporary cycle lanes and wider pavements across all cities and towns in preparation for the UK’s post-lockdown recovery.

And many authorities have been installing cycling infrastructure, including the Sheffield City Region, which last month published a plan to create a network of more than 1,000km of accessible walking and cycling routes across South Yorkshire to enable people to leave their cars at home. Mayor Dan Jarvis and active travel commissioner Dame Sarah Storey’s Active Travel Implementation Plan sets out how, by 2040, South Yorkshire will have a fully connected network of walking and cycling routes.

Westminster Council has published plans to provide new and additional space for cyclists and pedestrians in the heart of the capital. The council has been working to develop these temporary proposals in conjunction with local groups, residents and businesses.

Construction work to further boost West Yorkshire’s cycle and walking network has been brought forward as part of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s emergency response in partnership with Leeds City Council. Work has started on a new segregated cycling and walking route on Claypit Lane, Leeds, as part of a £6.9 million package of new infrastructure in the city.

And back in May, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson greenlit a £2 million package to introduce potentially up to 100km of pop-up cycle lanes along key routes into and within Liverpool city centre. May also saw the UK Government announce a £250 million emergency fund for cycling and walking infrastructure, part of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ plans to boost greener, active transport and create a “new era for cycling and walking”.

White says this is a significant step forward, but the real opportunity for long-term changes to active travel infrastructure and investment lies with the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which will be updated in the coming months. “Estimations show £6-8 billion is needed to level up cycling and walking across the country over the next five years.”

But will all this be enough to change our travel habits? Earlier surveys have provided an insight into the nation’s mood – with many pointing to a future where more of us will cycle.

And the survey says…
Last month, a survey of 2,089 members of the public living in cities revealed that more than half (53%) are now considering cycling to work, with 64% of respondents saying the main reason is to avoid ‘unsafe’ public transport. In April, an AA survey revealed that, out of nearly 20,000 drivers, 36% will walk, cycle or run more after lockdown is over, with 22% saying they will drive less.

In response, Edmund King OBE, AA president, said that there could potentially be major changes to the way we travel post-lockdown, with analysis suggesting that one fifth might use public transport less in cities. Outside of London, which has parking and congestion charging restrictions, we could see an increase in car use in cities where people shun public transport for fear of the virus.

However, this trend may be countered with a change in driving patterns by those who normally drive but have got used to leaving the car at home during the lockdown, King added. With some saying they will drive less after restrictions are lifted, it is also likely that at least one in ten will work from home more often.

The demand for new and used cars will still be there, as some will remain dependent on them, but people decreasing their usage will reduce congestion and bring environmental benefits. And life after lockdown will be different, added King. “Some will shun public transport, others will drive less, more will cycle and walk, working from home will continue for many. Some drivers who have appreciated lower traffic noise, fewer and shorter journeys, may be prompted finally to buy an electric vehicle.

“All in all, life will return and the increase in car use in some areas instead of public transport will be countered by others realising that they can use their cars less by working from home or even walking and cycling more.”

In May, an ICM poll for Shand Cycles found that 17% of commuters are more likely to cycle to work following the COVID-19 outbreak. If that trend were mapped across the country’s 32 million commuters, it would lead to five and a half million people taking to their bikes. The poll also found on average, commuters are willing to countenance a maximum 29-minute ride to their place of work.

While this upturn in interest in cycling is most pronounced in the south-east of England, with 20% more likely to cycle to work more following lockdown, it is also prominent nationwide, with 18% of commuters in the north of England and Scotland more likely to get to work on two wheels, 15% in Wales and the south-west and 13% in the Midlands.

“Cycling has been one of the few outdoor activities permitted during lockdown and that’s led to a lot of people rediscovering the pleasure of getting on two wheels,” said Ann Ritchie-Cox, general manager of Shand Cycles. “As the nation goes back to work, social distancing is going to be a huge challenge for those who previously used rush-hour public transport. So all the evidence points to a shift in behaviour towards trying out alternative modes of transport – including the bicycle.”

Commuting by bike is healthy, environmentally friendly and gives riders a sense of having achieved something before they even start their working day, Ritchie-Cox added. It’s therefore vital that both employers and the Government take steps to make it as safe and comfortable as possible for commuter cyclists.

Another poll, carried out by YouGov on behalf of Cycling UK, found that 36% of people questioned agreed that they could rethink their travel habits in the future to use cars and motor vehicles less. But for people to carry on cycling when the crisis is over, they want to see traffic-free cycle tracks and paths to high streets and town centres (63%), more designated cycle lanes on roads (53%), traffic restrictions in residential streets (30%) and a reduction of the speed limit to 20mph in residential and built up areas (24%).

This raises an important point about road safety – if the roads don’t look and feel safe to cycle, people will remain put off. If there’s space for people to cycle separated from motor vehicles, millions more will do it. And this isn’t new since COVID-19, there have always been concerns about the number of cyclists getting injured and how this can be prevented.

So what will the future hold for walking and cycling in the UK? And how much of an impact will COVID-19 have on our travel habits long-term? Data from China is already showing that, as restrictions ease, car travel will become more appealing than it was before the pandemic, potentially worsening inequality and the climate crisis, added White.

“It is therefore essential, in order to prevent an increase in car use, that walking and cycling are made the easiest and most appealing options for short journeys.”

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