The need to provide “more space” for micromobility, in particular cycling, but also walking as a travel mode and for pedestrian shoppers in town centers, has been an ongoing public policy target during the COVID-19 pandemic. This supports social distancing on the street and public transport as well as the concerns that many have about using public transport during this time. It also supports alternatives to personal driving for short distance trips.
As context, approximately half of households in Greater London do not have access to a car. Throughout the pandemic public transport, generally in Britain, and particularly in London, continued to operate a near full service. The UK has also been expediting the roll out of trials of, previously illegal, e-scooters in many UK cities.
I am a cyclist in London, as well as a public transport user, and have cycled much more throughout 2020 because of the pandemic. Thus, I have been delighted as well as disappointed by the numerous public space interventions that I have experienced through this year.
In the spring, the national Department for Transport announced an “Emergency Active Travel Fund” to support local councils in reallocating road space for significant increases in the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians through the pending spring and summer periods. This would support travel as well as social distancing within town centers. The national government also simplified the planning framework to enable restaurants and cafes to more easily be able to offer outdoor (pavement) eating and drinking, so that many of these facilities could be in place during this year’s summer period. Funding was made available to local councils to support this work.
Transport in London is delivered by Transport for London (TfL) — Underground, bus services, river services, main roads, and all traffic signals as well as overall cycling and walking policy. Thirty-three local authorities deliver, amongst other services, local roads, and services such as parking enforcement and sidewalks, etc., for the nine million residents of the metropolitan area. Thus, generally, street space issues are local authority services with support from TfL.
Therefore, the response to COVID-19 and street spacing can vary widely within London depending on the views and priorities of the local authority even though land use patterns are quite similar as you travel away from the core of the central area. While as a national emergency all councils are doing something, the speed and comprehensiveness of the impact varies sharply from some very basic and temporary interventions, to widespread and extensive transformations occurring during the summer and continuing in roll out into this autumn, winter, and beyond.
2020 brings change
Much has happened in UK cities, and certainly London, over 2020. The crowds that used to frequent Central London and the main tourist sites have disappeared. There are generally fewer “high street” shoppers and on-street activity. Much of this activity has moved to the many suburban town centers and some of these suburban areas are quite busy — particularly on weekends and during “good” weather. However, generally numbers have declined.
To support social distancing, how much space is needed? Can everyone stay the recommended six feet apart? Is this even needed to control the pandemic? Or, how can more people be given the confidence to be out and get their daily tasks completed, while maintaining the economy?
Also, how can alternative modes of transport be supported for those people who are unwilling to use “classic” public transport? While the entire London public transport network has been largely restored, social distancing is enforced by reduced vehicle capacity on buses and this is suggested on the rail system. Demand on buses is circa 60% of normal, but only 25% on rail in the city.
While many are working from home, where possible, and certainly most are simply not traveling as much as they used to for work, shopping, or leisure. The need for suggesting alternative travel modes is clear.
Thus, social spacing and reallocating road space is clearly a high policy agenda. It is also something demonstrable, that particularly local authorities in London can do, to show policy leadership in mobility during this crisis.
Improving micromobility access
Much has been done over the last few years to significantly improve cycling infrastructure in London. And cycling is has become much more widespread throughout the urban area. In many cases, cyclists are very numerous. Approximately 2.5% of trips are made by cycle and this is growing sharply, while a quarter of trips are made principally by walking.
Unlike most North American cities, London has few multi-lane highways within the urban area or wide boulevards. Most roads are two lanes and wind through many historic areas, but can nevertheless, be quite highly trafficked. This can be challenging for those who choose to cycle, as well as in many cases for pedestrians.
However, in practice much of the dedicated cycling infrastructure is concentrated in central London and in particularly some of the most recent high profile and high quality cycle routes, such as along the north side of the Thames through Westminster and the City of London. A network of high-quality routes is slowly being spread out from central London to the outer suburbs — previously referred to “cycle superhighways.” These complement many existing and effective quiet cycle routes through the web of side streets and routes across the numerous large parks, and along the canals and rivers.
The TfL owned Santander Cycle Hire scheme operating in much of Inner London had its highest rates of usage at the start of the spring during lockdown. This was supported by fine, stable, and warm weather and strong public messages to avoid non-essential use of the still operating public transport network.
Recent interventions, however, are quite substantial and widespread. Some interventions offer further protection for existing cycle lanes, while others offer new dedicated facilities. Particular, merit should be given to the Borough of Wandsworth (southwest of Central London) that has implemented widespread interventions for pedestrians and cyclists. These include: Garratt Lane and Old York Road - SW18; Northcote Road – SW11; Tooting High Street – SW19.
However, Wandsworth has recently experienced severe criticism from some local groups for its measures and further implementation has been suspended.
The City of London (the financial office core of the city) has also rapidly implemented extensive and widespread removal of vehicle traffic to support cycling and pedestrians. This is a rapid expansion of a longer-term program. The city, however, faces some severe longer term challenges due to the move to work from home and its predominate office based land use — along with supporting meeting, retail, and entertainment land uses, which are under particular threat in the post-COVID-19 world.
A glance into the future
The Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham has taken the opportunity to implement an impressive predominately cycling scheme in an already relatively cycle friendly route through Chiswick High Street in west London. This supports activity in a relatively busy high street that would be under threat by newer local shopping malls, the general rise in internet shopping, and COVID-19 declines in street activity.
We are now in the midst of the second wave of COVID-19, and as cases are rising restrictions are increasing on public life. This is depressing travel to work as well as for leisure and shopping. Concern about using public transport is again rising. While it is getting colder, wetter, and the hours of daylight shorter, cycling and walking as modes of travel still are relevant throughout much of the winter in London.
Particularly in these winter months, dedicated, spacious, and well-designed cycling facilities become even more important, even if absolute numbers of users are reduced from the summer months.
And for the future?
Car travel in much of the UK and London has returned to the pre-pandemic levels and thus, users of micromobility face substantial road congestion. Suppressing this car travel remains a perpetual policy challenge and fear of public spaces because of COVID-19 makes this more complex.
While more space for micromobility is being rolled out in many parts of London, it is not universal, comprehensive, or continuous, and roll out is still slow. Thus, users continue to find an inconsistent cycling experience. Will this make sufficient difference to stimulate a substantial shift to micromobility in the short term, or even long term?
The impact of the crisis is already starting to appear in the UK’s public finances and it is clear that the largess in public funds will not last very long, and in fact, taxes, fares, and fees will need to rise substantially in the near term and/or public investment substantially restrained. Will funding be maintained in the shared space revolution or will it be diverted to principally supporting the continued operation of the classic public transport network and attempt to restore public confidence in its use as well as the pre-COVID-19 financial business model?
These are difficult and unknown questions, but in the interim, London is experiencing a wide range of interventions that are transforming many road spaces, albeit in a series of locally specific ways.