Monday, 18 May 2020

We need to talk about the car

If post-Covid Britain has a far more prominent pedestrian and cycling culture than it did previously, this will be wonderful progress. Locally, I've long bemoaned how car-focused Newport is, despite it also having the potential to be a very walkable city. I've often talked long-term about there not being the current four lanes of traffic dividing the city centre from the riverfront and have called for improvements to walking a cycling routes to make them safer and more appealing to use.

Today, all of those aspirations remain and perhaps even feel closer to reality. Bicycle sales are rocketing and councils who wanted to encourage more walking and cycling and less car use are seizing the moment to introduce new measures which not only meet social distancing requirements but also match their objectives for active travel.

So, that is all good. Except, it is the easy part of the puzzle. Cycling and walking are not going to be a solution for all. At the same time as urban roads are being amended to allow for more space for cyclists and pedestrians, public transport is an unappealing option due to the virus. In the short-term, we are unlikely to see less car use, we are likely to see more as people pick the safety of private transport over the risk of contagion on buses, trams and trains. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long until public transport again becomes an attractive option, but it cannot be ignored that right now it is not.

If road capacity is being reduced in cities and yet more people are likely to choose to travel by car what planning needs to take place? Here are some initial thoughts:
  • Cities need to rethink park and ride and offer park on the outskirts of the city centre and allow traffic free pedestrian and cycle routes from them (for short-hand, I'm going to refer to these as 'park and move' facilities);
  • Park and move locations should provide cycle hire schemes, but these days they will need to be staffed with the bikes disinfected between users;
  • Where road capacity is reduced by extended pavements and cycle lanes consider scope for one-way loops rather then traffic squashed in going in both directions;
  • Bring temporarily disused land into use to facilitate more edge of city centre parking spaces.
It might be many people's ideal to imagine a car free city centre, but that is unachievable while public transport is unappealing. Where as park and ride facilities would typically be on the very edge of a city, park and move would require locations within two miles of the very centre of the city.

It is sensible that we should not simply seek to return to the old ways of car-centric cities, but neither can we ignore the reality of the situation. It is difficult to balance the short-term increase in car use with the long-term desire for a car-free city. We do though need to be realistic about what the coming months will bring in terms of increased car journeys because transport planning must be based on the reality if it is to deliver the ideal.