Comment: Coronavirus and transport – challenges and opportunities

Comment from ECIU media briefing on options for reshaping the UK’s transport system after the Covid-19 crisis.

By George Smeeton

Last updated:

A media briefing today heard from speakers on options for reshaping the UK’s transport system after the Covid-19 crisis. Commenting, Andy Street, Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “In a dense urban area such as the West Midlands, the key to a greener transport future is getting people out of their cars and onto public transport, alongside a comprehensive cycling and walking network.

“After the last few years of hard work and major investment to try and overhaul our public transport network, it is gutting to tell people to stay away because of the Coronavirus pandemic. But we must not let this deter us from our long-term goal of creating a 21st century public transport system to rival that of London. The capital has received seven times the transport investment any of the UK’s other major city-regions have received, and it is clear the difference that has made.

“We must also turn to the role of the automotive industry and its future producing electric and autonomous vehicles as we look to de-carbonise our transport system. Here in the West Midlands, as the automotive heartland of the UK, we are ready to lead the way in this area, with research centres, production plants, and a sophisticated supply chain already in place. But we need the Government to back us to build a Gigafactory, and to also consider how to subsidise the purchase of electric, low-emission vehicles.”

Edmund King, AA president, said: “Transport patterns won’t be the same in life after lockdown according to drivers. [3] Half say they will walk more; four in ten vow to drive less; a quarter will work from home more and one fifth will cycle more. However, in the shorter term some who want to avoid public transport due to social distancing may take the car.

“We need some more radical thinking in our metropolitan areas with provision for ‘park and pedal’ at the outskirts of cities so drivers can park up and complete their journeys on two wheels or two feet.

“People have enjoyed quieter streets and cleaner air so more may opt for electric cars, cycles, e-bikes and scooters after lockdown.

“Given that public money will be tight and that Britain is on the road to net zero emissions target within 30 years, it would be sensible for government to prioritise funding projects that improve health and accelerate decarbonising while at the same time getting Britain moving again.”

Scarlett McNally, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon and cycling champion, said: “There is compelling evidence on the health benefits of active travel, such as walking and cycling; these extend to the indirect benefits of lower levels of traffic related air pollution.

“Air pollution harms every organ in the body, and contributes to a number of conditions - including severe asthma, type 2 diabetes and heart disease - which can increase the risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

“As the country begins to recover from the pandemic, we are faced with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the ways in which we travel. Replacing motorised transport with active travel where possible is the best way to improve our own health, and it also improves the health of the environment - building resilience against future crises.

“The Government should take a number of steps to help people incorporate cycling and walking into their lives. Active travel has accounted for only 5% of the transport budget in recent years.”

Tim Hollingsworth, Chief Executive of Sport England, said: “We know from research undertaken during the pandemic that the number of people who have cycled in the past week has doubled from 8% at the beginning of the lockdown to 16% in the latest stats. The number of people walking regularly has also gone up in recent weeks – to around two thirds of all adults. This is a unique opportunity to support people who are making new habits so that they can lead healthier, happier and more active lives.

“We welcome investment in active travel that will create accessible connections to reunite friends, communities, economies and local services across towns and cities. For this change to last it is crucial that we promote walking and cycling as an easy, accessible and enjoyable way to get around, especially for the first or last mile of our journeys.

“Everyone has a responsibility to keep the nation active and Sport England look forward to working with Government and Local Authorities to support England’s least active people to join the nation walking and cycling more. If we collectively get this right, this could be transformative - to our collective wellbeing, easing the pressure on public transport and helping our National Health Service.”

A recording of the briefing is available here (begins from 9:15).