A missed opportunity?

Edinburgh's Princes Street with buses, cyclists and pedestrians

On 28th April 2020 the Scottish Government announced that £10million would be made available to support pop-up active travel infrastructure. This was in wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and the requirement to socially distance.

There was a lot of positive language used to imply that, finally, Scotland would follow its European neighbours and put active travel at the centre of the transport agenda.

The Government stated, "across the world, cities have seen increased rates of cycling as the number of car journeys have declined due to COVID restrictions – and many cities have responded to this by reallocating road space to better enable this shift and make it safer for people who choose to walk, cycle or wheel for essential trips or for exercise. Scotland’s towns and cities will now be able to do the same.”

Of course, any major change to our transport network requires extensive planning but we have seen a number of cities across England that have made fairly dramatic changes to their roads to make cycling and walking safer. These cities include; London, Manchester, York and Cambridge.

Closer to home, Aberdeen City Council have shut off Union Street to motorised vehicles. The Council applied to the Scottish Government’s 'Spaces for People' fund to transform the city’s main thoroughfare into a car-free zone.

Aberdeen's Union Street
The impetus for change is to assist with social distancing whilst also allowing our economy to recover and get more businesses open. While change does not happen overnight, we have been in lockdown for over 10 weeks. The changes in our two biggest cities; Glasgow and Edinburgh are few, to say the least.

While there may be future plans, the time for change is now. Attitudes towards active travel, health and the environment have shifted dramatically since 23rd March. The fear is, if we wait too long to introduce changes in our road network, people will have returned to their BC (Before Covid) ways and the opportunity for change is lost.

This is already visible. The number of cyclists and pedestrians had increased during lockdown with more families getting out to exercise but with Phase 1 of the Government’s plans to ease lockdown coming into force only last week there has already been a drop in the number of pedestrians and cyclists. This is perhaps no surprise when the promised ‘reallocating of space’ is difficult to find.

To be able to return to any sense of normality, while also holding off the threat of a second spike in cases, social distancing seems to be key. This is going to be difficult on public transport and not all can afford or wish to use motorised vehicles. Active travel alternatives are therefore going to be essential. It would not be sensible to suggest everyone can walk to their place of work. Cycling however is a viable option for many.

One of the main barriers to many taking up cycling is road safety. In 2018, 638 cyclists were killed or injured on Scotland’s roads. In order to make cycling safer, attitudes towards road sharing need to change.

From the Scottish Government pledge of £10million, it is up to individual Councils to apply for funds, Aberdeen being a prime example. In order for change to be implemented and encouraged, there does need to be pressure from the top. It is important to take into account evolving attitudes and priorities post lockdown but also the lessons we have learned.

There needs to be a push for change now while people are receptive to a new ways of travelling.

Planning is one thing but let’s hope the window for changing behaviour and attitudes on our roads has not been missed.

Jodi Gordon - Partner

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