5 ways transport could change after COVID-19

Coronavirus has impacted all aspects of our lives, including the way we travel. But once the pandemic is over, are there ways we can improve our transport systems and make sustainable travel accessible and safe for all?
By Eoin Redahan    |      Published:  27 May 2020    |      4 minute read

Our lives have been changed dramatically over the past few months by the coronavirus pandemic. As well as a shift to online working for some, and social distancing for many, it's now normal for people to shop with surgical gloves, wear masks, and duck into driveways to avoid contact with others.

We’ve also seen a number of new, temporary transport measures, leading to healthier spaces with more walking and cycling, reduced vehicle emissions and cleaner air. 

So what can we do in the long term to make these measures stick?

1. Build an inclusive cycling environment

We’ve seen extraordinary progress with cycling infrastructure in a short space of time. In Bogotá, Colombia, temporary cycle lanes sprang up overnight, an extensive emergency cycling network has been planned in Mexico City, cycling and walking space will be expanded by 35 km in Milan this summer, and the Mayor of Liverpool has promised to invest £2 million in pop-up cycle lanes.  

Cycling should be open to everyone but much needs to be done to make it more inclusive. People need to feel safe when cycling, and that means dedicated cycle lanes free from cars, vans and motorbikes, which can accommodate all types of cyclists.

Making cycling inclusive also means redressing the gender balance. In English-speaking countries and many Latin American countries, there's a significant gender gap in cycling. Tiffany Lam, urban sociologist with New Economics Foundation Consulting, says: “for every female cyclist, there are 3 to 4 male cyclists, and this ratio has not changed over the past decade or so, despite increased investments in cycling infrastructure”. 

Inclusive cycling, from photojB
Much must be done to improve the gender balance in cycling.
Credit: photojB

Violence, street harassment, and a higher incidence of aggressive drivers targeting women all disproportionately affect female cyclists. Women are disproportionately burdened with caring responsibilities, which transport infrastructure doesn’t do enough to accommodate. Lam has called for more gender expertise and diversity in transport planning to address these factors. 

To improve safety for cyclists, walking and cycling charity Sustrans advocates using barrier blocks and planters on some roads to slow vehicles and reduce vehicle access, creating low-traffic neighbourhoods. It recommends removing access barriers from some cycle networks, opening them up to those on adapted bikes, tricycles, and even cargo bikes.

The government must do more to support the expansion of safe cycling networks. The recent announcement of a £2 billion package for so-called Active Travel is encouraging news, but is dwarfed by the £27 billion pledged to build new roads.

“The government must use the dreadful pandemic to re-think its massive £27 billion roads programme, which would just generate new extra traffic," says Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates. "The funds must be used instead to build back a better transport system so that we can all enjoy safer walking and cycling and better public transport.”

2. Make our cities more walkable 

Around a third of carbon emissions from driving could be avoided if people were able to switch to walking and cycling.

The widening of pavements in Milan, planned car-free zones in London and Brighton, and the Super Blocks in Barcelona (where car traffic is limited to the outskirts of certain areas) show what can be done to make walking more attractive to people. 

But across the UK, walking infrastructure (like pavements and crossings) needs to be safer and more socially inclusive, especially for older people and those with young children. Busy areas and dangerous crossings mean some are reluctant to leave their homes and others drive instead.

Ridhi Kalaria, project officer at Sustrans, says longer traffic light crossing times, pavement parking bans, and wider pavements with better surfaces encourage people to walk. Crucially, these measures also help reduce social isolation. 

“We’re looking at these physical factors and how they might be a factor of social isolation – that someone cannot get out of their house and across the road to get to a community centre,” she says. “It contributes to their social isolation, of not being able to get to the spaces and places they want to go.”

3. Reduce car traffic  

According to The Guardian, lockdown at its strictest triggered a 31% reduction in UK carbon emissions, in part due to less road traffic.

The worry is that traffic will return to its polluting, pre-COVID-19 levels once lockdown ends. As Transport for Quality of Life notes, traffic needs to be reduced by 20-60% if we’re to combat climate breakdown, and even a big increase in electric vehicles won't be enough. 

Barriers to slow traffic
Street kit being used to narrow a wide junction to slow traffic.
Credit: Sara Jones/Sustrans

But there are promising signs. Cities across Europe, including London and Birmingham (from 2021), are introducing clean air zones that charge high-polluting vehicles for entering the city centre. Nottingham's workplace parking levy has been a notable success, with revenue invested in an electric tram network.

And change can happen on a smaller scale too, helped by community buy-in. One of Sustrans’ projects aims to encourage more children and parents to walk or cycle to school. And in Birmingham, multi-faith local action group Footsteps is organising car-share schemes and walking groups for those travelling to religious services.

4. Improve public transport 

Transport accounts for the largest slice of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and public transport will be key in cutting it. However, the way people view public transport could be adversely affected by the pandemic, given social distancing concerns and homeworking.

So now's the time to rethink our approach to public transport, in terms of routes, costs and funding. According to Tiffany Lam, transport planning has long focused on users being male breadwinners who commute into city centres, with less emphasis on local journeys.

But with attitudes towards commuting to city centres changing, she feels we could see a change from radial public transport routes, which go from suburbs straight into city centres, to more orbital ones.

Lam also says we may need to reframe the way we think of public transport – as an essential public service, like affordable housing. So it could be subsidised or even free, as it is for essential workers in Barcelona.

5. More emphasis on Active Travel

To reduce vehicle emissions, public transport must remain an attractive option into the future. The expansion of walking and cycling infrastructure is something to build on to make our transport use more sustainable.

Now more than ever, we need to find sustainable transport solutions. That's why local action groups are working with national and local government to make temporary transport measures a permanent fixture, and protect people's health as well as the environment. Join your local action group and find out how you can get involved.