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World of tomorrow: Will Covid-19 change cycling and transport in the UK?

In-depth
12 May 2020
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Imagine a problem where you have around nine million people, who have to make 27 million journeys a day. Six million are by train, four million by bus, nearly 10 million by car, seven million on foot and a mere 700,000 by bicycle. At the best of times, the cars barely move, the trains and buses are rammed, and the public is reluctant to cycle. Now, subtract 90% of the capacity on trains and underground tubes and decide how you get those several million people to work.

The problem is called London, and it's the same story for hundreds of towns and cities around the world.

Social distancing has presented policy makers with an incredibly difficult logistical problem when it comes to transport. A train and bus system that was previously near capacity will be reduced to a skeleton service to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus. Meanwhile the idea of putting any more cars on London's already gridlocked roads is a tad fanciful.

Politicians have happened upon a solution. Encourage more people to cycle, and they will be able to socially distance while not overwhelming the capacity of the road system.

This slide, taken form a TfL presentation, outlines the basic challenge of capacity

Unsurprisingly, cities all over the world are trying to retrofit a transport system to cater more for cyclists. The UK, in turn, has pledged £2bn for active travel, and swiftly revised statutory guidance on the allocation of road space.

‘One thing that is very positive is that the messaging from the Government and the messaging form governments across the UK is far more supportive about active travel than it has ever been,’ says Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns for Cycling UK.

Previously, conversations have often been about ‘encouragement’, says Dollimore, where now they have shifted towards ‘enablement’ of cycling through measures that make it safe and appealing.

While the social distancing advantages of cycling are clear, they hardly dwarf the already expansive list of reasons to encourage cycling. Air pollution, inactivity and road deaths have likely claimed far more deaths through history than Covid will in the coming months and years. While in major cities, transport systems are constantly teetering at full capacity.

None of that has shifted cycling’s share of overall journeys in the UK above 2%, versus 27% in the Netherlands.

Why, then, has cycling lagged behind, with cycling today proving to be substantially less popular than in the 1960s? Will all the enthusiasm that surrounds cycling in the age of social distancing change that?

Let’s look back at where we all went wrong.

Visions of Future Past

There was a time in the 1960s when we had the future all worked out. Elevated highways would allow space-age cars to whiz around our cities at 120mph, while pedestrians would be transported on a system of escalators. There wouldn’t be a cyclist in sight.

Movie-makers, architects and policy makers all had a similar vision of the 21st century metropolis, and it was fast-paced and motor-centric.

Had they looked into their crystal balls and seen the gridlocked roads, global issues with air pollution and the rise in popularity of cycling, our cities might look very different.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis began, cities all over the world were trying to retrofit a transport system to cater for more cyclists in a bid to ease congestion.

In London, successive mayors have seized upon cycling as a solution to the great problem of transport. Boris Johnson introduced the cycling ‘Superhighways’, which provided painted lanes and some segregated cycling tracks across the city. Despite being a bike rider himself, his reasoning was all about efficiency, rather than an empathy for the joy of cycling.

Space battles

Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at Westminster University and an expert on the study of urban cycling, explains how politicians came to realise the future might not be car-shaped: ‘In the 1990s, academics and practitioners within transport studies began critiquing the “predict and provide” idea.

‘We couldn’t continue to say because we have more car use we should build more roads. That’s because the increase in roads simply creates more car use. Instead, we have to restrain demand.’

The underlying problem is outlined by the Lewis-Mogridge Position, which shows that where more roads are built, more traffic is generated to fill them. ‘The idea derives from the use of coal in British manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution,’ Aldred says, where increasing supply of coal led to increased demand and depleted the resource.

The logical conclusion of meeting demand for driving with the supply of roads is a boundless tarmac plain saturated with slow-moving traffic – which has become a near reality in a number of US cities. As the song says, LA is a great big freeway…

In the UK, though, constantly adding more roads simply isn’t an option.

‘We have historic city centres with narrow streets and we’ve got increasing car use,’ Aldred says. ‘If you want to allow everyone to drive, we have to destroy the historic city centres.’ That’s why cycling became the topic of the day before current social distancing even sprung into life. ‘TfL [Transport for London] isn’t investing in cycling because it’s a nice, fluffy thing to do,’ says Aldred.

‘They’ve looked at population projections and realised that if everyone wants to drive, or even use the bus, we’re stuffed.’

The segregation theory

London’s Cycling Commissioner during Boris Johnson’s time as mayor was Andrew Gilligan, and his solution to increasing the speed of the city was to cut away part of the road to make space solely for cyclists.

That’s a strategy that has been continued under Sadiq Khan’s mayoral tenure in London. Significantly, though, during the Covid-19 crisis this has been a policy that has been adopted more nationally. Encouragingly, Andrew Gilligan became transport advisor to Boris Johnson when he won the race to become Conservative leader.

Gilligan asserts that his construction of Cycle Superhighways was a more than fair redistribution of space. ‘There are 1.3 million people coming into Central London each morning, but only 59,000 do so by car, making up less than 5%.

‘Yet those people get a vast share of the surface of London,’ he told Cyclist, in an interview before he took up the role of transport advisor.

Nevertheless Johnson and Gilligan paid a hefty price in criticism. The slowing of traffic in London became a national headline – the average speed at the end of 2016 fell below that of a horse and cart, and the cycling Superhighways got the blame.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ Gilligan says. ‘There are 15,000 miles of road in central London, of which just 12 miles were fitted with segregated cycle lanes.’

He’d hoped to build more, and is disappointed more have not been built since he left office, but resistance has been considerable from motoring groups, residents and politicians.

Indeed, even during the Covid-19 crisis we are already seeing vocal opposition to cycling projects. Curiously, the British Airline Pilots Association described themselves as 'aghast and frankly furious' at the mere prospect of £2bn of cycling investment.

More locally, residents of Kensington and Chelsea have repeatedly blocked the construction of a major London cycling route, Cycle Superhighway 9. The stated reasons for objection have been numerous, but often the bottom line is that the idea of vehicle traffic being slowed to prioritise cycling simply isn't popular with many residents.

London's segregated infrastructure has been an incredible success

That’s perhaps an unfortunate consequence of the fact that a car driver’s time is considered more valuable than a cyclist’s – a perspective enshrined in official Department of Transport policy.

The ‘Value of Working Time’ calculation was devised by authorities and planners to assess just how much the time of different types of commuters or working travellers is worth to the economy.

This information was then used to judge the value of different projects accordingly. In 2014, the value of a cyclist’s working time was put at £17.47 per hour, compared to a car driver’s £22.74. So slowing drivers down to speed up cyclists flies against conventional thinking.

That could be one area where we could see a significant shift in light of Covid-19.

While the latest announcements in funding for cycling may take a while to take effect, buried in the new statutory guidelines on cycling and walking were measures that could halt the opposition to new schemes.

‘There is a nod in that guidance to the fact that the government does have powers to intervene if local authorities do not exercise their local transport powers in accordance with statutory guidance,’ says Dollimore.

‘That’s not quite the same as saying, "if the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea object to measures, the government will intervene”,’ Dollimore continues. ‘But I think the mood music and message from the government is getting clearer that if you don’t take this action we are going to be looking at this very carefully.’

Of course, in the battle for road space, cyclists taking much-coveted space from cars may spark the usual hostilities against cyclists, and even with the government on side, it may be no easy feat prying space away from major urban streets.

Predictably, many suggested the ideal solution was not to change the roads, but instead move cyclists onto hitherto non-existent space.

Creative but ineffective solutions

Numerous fanciful ideas have been dreamed up to accommodate cyclists in London, including floating paths on the River Thames.

Gilligan is somewhat sceptical, though. ‘It was the bane of my life,’ he says. ‘We kept getting approached by these people with absurd schemes, such as elevated bikeways above railways lines.

‘Then there was another proposal to create bike lanes in disused underground tunnels. I remember saying, “Where are these disused underground tunnels? And how would you get down to them? Aren’t most of these stations only accessible by escalators or lifts?” That ended that.’

The real solutions are simple, unglamourous and often unpopular, according to Gilligan: ‘There are no magic solutions, there are simple solutions easy enough for everyone to support, but you just have to have the balls to do them.’

There is considerable risk involved – in some cases hugely expensive cycle networks have been torn up to make way for cars once again.

That very thing is currently happening in Adelaide in Australia, for instance. The other risk is that once cyclists have their own paths, they may not be allowed back on the road.

Changing laws

‘I’ve heard senior police officers say cyclists should be required to use cycle lanes regardless of their conditions,’ says Martin Porter QC, a Queen’s Counsel barrister specialising in cycling-related litigation.

He highlights that mandatory use of cycle lanes was almost enshrined in law as recently as 2004. ‘The last time the Highway Code was revised, the original draft said that cyclists “should” use infrastructure wherever it was provided, so you would be in breach of the Highway Code if you didn’t,’ says Porter.

‘It was only vigorous work by the CTC, as Cycling UK was then known, who persuaded the Minister of Transport to tone it down to what it currently says – that it depends on your experience and it “may” make your journey safer.

‘When Boris Johnson built this infrastructure, he guaranteed there would be no law requiring cyclists to use them, but the aim was that they would be so good that cyclists would choose to use them, which has got to be the right approach,’ Porter adds.

That doesn’t solve the problem of the motoring majority, who have seen road space chipped away and are unhappy when a cyclist uses the road (cue furious Daily Mail headline).

London's bi-directional segregated tracks

As good as the Superhighways may be, they are far from perfect, which is mainly down to the problems of retrofitting major British roads with separated tracks.

‘They use a bi-directional cycle track on one side of the road partly because of space, and because that overcomes some of the difficulty of getting decent priority at the junctions,’ says Roger Geffen, policy director at Cycling UK.

‘That is a suboptimal solution – not one you’d see on the Continent. If you travel south on the north-south Superhighway, your journey starts and ends on the east side of the road, so you’ve basically got to cross that road twice.

‘A better solution would be to change the UK’s traffic laws by offering priority for cyclists.’

Yet while temporary infrastructure and incentives to get people cycling have been considered during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, there have been very few suggestions of changing the laws needed to protect cyclists.

Changes to the broader laws of driving could remove the need for segregation altogether. ‘Totally segregated infrastructure is almost like an admission of defeat,’ says Porter.

‘In the sense that if everyone drove well and in accordance with the law all the time you wouldn’t need the infrastructure because people would feel, and be, perfectly safe riding and driving along together on the roads.’

For Porter, the law is a big factor in influencing behaviour: ‘I wouldn’t be a lawyer if I didn’t think the law was important and capable of improving society.

‘People say that change relies on infrastructure and anything else is a waste of time and effort, but I don’t think it is as black and white as that.’  

Equally, even in the wake of Covid-19, infrastructure will not be available on the vast majority of the UK's roads, leading rural cyclists to still contend with motor traffic.

One of the problems for cyclists when mixing with motorists, though, is that poor driving often goes unpunished. Even when drivers are prosecuted for intimidating or injuring cyclists, juries can be reluctant to convict.

‘There’s a great problem with motorists getting too much sympathy from a jury that is derived from their motoring peers,’ Porter argues. Worse still, even when a driver is given a ban, the court will often take pity and allow them to continue driving.

‘There’s a massive industry of lawyers out there who will almost guarantee to get a motorist off losing their licence, usually by claiming it causes “exceptional hardship”. It’s big business and it’s a fairly scandalous state of affairs,’ says Porter.

More concerning still, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, several news sources reported that traffic offences were not being enforced even to normal standards – especially for offences such as speeding.

Strict liability

Continental Europe is not without dangerous drivers, but the law protects cyclists. Strict liability laws mean a larger vehicle is presumed responsible for a collision – a car is presumed at fault for hitting a cyclist, and a cyclist at fault for hitting a pedestrian (unless proved otherwise).

‘Hungary, the UK and Malta are the only European nations who don’t have strict liability,’ says Porter.

As simple as it seems to bring such law into the UK, the complexities of doing so mean that Porter doesn’t even see it as a battle worth fighting.

‘You have to appreciate how powerful the insurance lobby is in this country. It’s easy to portray strict liability rather inaccurately as reckless cyclists getting themselves into trouble and costing some innocent motorist an increase in insurance premiums.

‘It doesn’t play well with a public that’s motor-centric.’

Perhaps the ideal solution would be to remove the human motorist altogether, yet Geffen is sceptical that driverless cars are the answer in the long-term.

The driverless dilemma

Driverless cars have not only been suggested as a future for private car ownership, but are often considered a future for mass-transit. Cue Elon Musk's elaborate schemes for underground Tesla-motorways...

Of course, driverless cars hardly seem geared up to fill the transport deficit during Covid. 'We’re being told we’ll need to have some form of social distancing in the next 12 to 18 months,' says Dollimore. 'That’s not a timescale within which autonomous vehicles are going to present a solution. But that’s not to say that they won’t play a significant part in the future.'

So perhaps once the dust has settled for Covid-19, the next big question for cyclists will be how autonomous vehicles factor in this competiton for road space.

‘It’s still early days but it’s a bit disappointing that we haven’t had more contact with either the manufacturers or those involved in the regulation of self-driving cars,’ Geffen says, adding that there are unanswered questions over how compatible autonomous cars will be with cyclists.

‘Will they just detect a cyclist or also predict their movements, responding to hand signals, for instance? If all they know is that there’s a cyclist there, and don’t know you’re about to change lanes following a hand signal, we have a big problem.’

Unfortunately, early reports on Tesla’s autopilot setting suggest its cars have trouble recognising cyclists at all. And there is another issue: road space. Will the autonomous car free up space or clog roads up even more?

‘The fact that they will steer more predictably offers potential advantages in space terms. They could effectively be following each other as predictably as a tram on rails,’ suggests Geffen.

‘They also might not be the sort of thing you own – instead you could order it like an Uber. That could remove much of the space taken by parked private cars, freeing up room for protected cycle facilities.’

A cooperative traffic system has obvious advantages, but it relies on all cars being autonomous.

‘I think there’s a distinction to be made,’ says Aldred. ‘A system where you have lots of humans driving and a few autonomous vehicles offers few benefits but all of the disadvantages of greater car use.’

Many have cautioned that the self-driving car could cause an increase in congestion.

‘The problem with driverless cars is it massively lowers the barrier to driving,’ Gilligan warns. ‘You don’t need a test, you don’t need insurance, you just need a driverless car to jump into, and that could cause an explosion of traffic.’

Back to the Future

The current popularity of cycling is certainly a great opportunity to rebuild our city streets, but what will the Covid legacy be?

Areas like Brighton, Leeds and London have already embarked on the construction of temporary lanes. Manchester has dedicated £5m to emergency changes to roads to prioritise safe cycling. Permanent rebuilding of streets and large roads has been encouraged across the country by new guidance, but for substantial and permanent projects authorities will still require local consultations and support.

Internationally, New York has announced that 40 miles of streets will temporarily have extended pavements and cycle lanes, while Milan promises to install 35km of segregated infrastructure. If even some of that remains in place, it could lead to a once-in-a-lifetime transformation of cities. If most improvements are purely temporary, perhaps it will see a conversion to cycling amongst millions in the short term that could shift public perceptions around road space.

At the same time, congestion is likely to be worse than ever, and competition for space at its most fierce at a time when enforcement of traffic laws could prove meagre. Even while bike shops sell out of bikes in the coming weeks, that will do little good for cycling in the UK if cyclists are too terrified to ride them.

Given decades of convincing arguments for cycling, but little progress in infrastructure or law, it would be presumptive to think that Covid-19 will make an exception. It will continue to be an uphill struggle to achieve any lasting change, especially as bicycles come into competition with autonomous vehicles and waves of subsidised electric cars.

For the wider public health of the nation, the benefits of active transport in terms of inactivity, obesity and air pollution could far outlive the punishing consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. We can only hope that cycling could prove a rare silver lining in these uncertain times.