Measures to restrict movement to stop the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in less traffic and use of public transport. Many of us have also dusted off our old bikes. Some forward-thinking cities, including Milan and Bogotá, are now reallocating road space to active travel, so walkers and cyclists can meet the 2-metre social distancing requirement.  Parts of the UK are also reassessing how they use road space during lockdown, particularly since the government temporarily relaxed laws around establishing car-free streets. After fourteen years of re-imagining the UK’s transport system, our Sustainable Future Transport lead, Gavin Bailey, believes active travel has an important role to play, not just to stem the spread of Covid-19, but also to support economic recovery and tackle both air pollution and climate change. His thoughts are below.

Covid-19 – hitching a ride on air pollution

“There is an increasing amount of information that links the severity of Covid-19 with air pollution caused by particulate matter from sources such as motor engine exhausts. We already know fine particulate matter from road traffic is inhaled and carried easily to the bottom of the lungs, where the particles are absorbed into the bloodstream. There is now evidence indicating that airborne particulate matter may help the virus to spread by providing a vehicle for transmission.”

Good for air quality, good for the economy

“The World Health Organisation estimates that the economic cost of deaths from air pollution in the UK is more than $83 billion US dollars. We already know investing in active travel infrastructure can improve air quality and public health. We have previously carried out research for the UK charity Sustrans into the air quality benefits of active travel and, before this, carried out an economic analysis of active travel interventions for The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). These research papers offer decision-makers evidence for the economic and environmental outcomes they can expect after investing in measures that support active travel. We hope this evidence can help interested councils to make their case for a switch to active travel.”

Air quality and climate emergency are linked

“Another reason councils should feel encouraged to rapidly support active travel is its positive effect on the climate. Over 200 UK local authorities have now declared climate emergencies but most have yet to wake up to the fact that their air quality plans (where active travel is often considered) need to be far more ambitious if they want to meet the goals they have set themselves in their climate emergency strategies – the two are connected.”

Part of a practical plan for the future of UK transport

 “My greatest concern is that seeking to stimulate the economy post-lockdown, with social distancing still in place, will result in the private car once again be perceived as the transport mode of choice. Meanwhile, public transport, a cornerstone of any sustainable transport plan, has been hard hit by lockdown. It’s difficult to be socially distant on a crowded tube, train or bus and a recent, but not peer-reviewed, study links the virus epidemic in New York City to the subway system – a potentially damaging public transport narrative. To accommodate social distancing, the capacity and frequency of public transport need to be increased but the fall in ticketing revenues during this period make this unlikely to be economically viable.”

“There are always ways the government could support more sustainable travel in the UK – like adjusting fuel duty and taxation to more appropriate levels – but I think we can and need to do more. Some of us are lucky enough at the moment to have some time to step back and think about what we want the future to look like.  At Eunomia, we’re in the process of putting together a transport plan that illustrates our practical vision for the future of UK transport  –  one which takes account of both the economic implications of the pandemic and the need to decarbonise the way we travel.”