Less than a week before the UK underwent the single biggest societal shift since the 1400’s, a select group of towns and cities were on the cusp of a different type of change. With the 2020 budget announcement came the latest recipients of the UK Government’s Transforming Cities Fund grants, with significant investment awarded to cities and regions across the country.

In addition, £90 million was awarded for Future of Transport Zones (formerly FMZ) to support a range of innovations and new ways to help people and goods move around, and make journeys easier, smarter and greener as part of the Future of Transport regulatory review. The funding boost was planned to lead to trials of transport innovation in three new ‘future transport zones’: Portsmouth and Southampton, the West of England Combined Authority, and Derby and Nottingham.

Regional plans for both include active travel schemes, new cycle systems and bus rapid transit routes, but the macrocosm created over the last month demonstrates that significantly reduced car usage can positively affect our environments. Authorities who want to build on these changes should look to review their proposals to take into account compatibility with the post-COVID-19 world. 

This gives time to reflect and review original ideas and deliverability, but also to look at learnings taken from this situation, which quite rightly is seldom mentioned without the term ‘unprecedented’. As we enter the second month of national lockdown we can see the effects of our new travel normality. It seems clear that no data modelling or future casting indicated the almost immediate economic and social consequences of a pandemic of this level, but in our enforced lockdowns and isolation we have been offered a glimpse of a very different life, and there are surely lessons to be taken from this experience.  

The coronavirus pandemic has already changed many of our personal habits related to work and social interaction. It’s an opportunity for a different way of thinking about urban design and planning as well.

Image from WYCA – LCR TCF Submission Appendix 3

One of the most significant changes has been in the transport sector, with a dramatic and almost overnight reduction in travel. A side-effect of the national lockdown is the sudden creation of space in what were previously congested and crowded cities. Public transport (outside of London) is transporting far fewer users. Of course, the current ‘normal’ is not an accurate model of our future ‘normal’. People will return to the streets once restrictions are lifted, but our habits will be changed. On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact – and it seems likely that heavy restrictions could continue past that point. The shift to home working may remain the default working arrangement for many, but shopping habits may also experience an adjustment – a  move to serve locally-sourced retail would have significant impacts on land-use patterns and transport. 

It’s likely there will be a retention in the shift in peoples natural ‘personal space’ dimensions – which is already evidenced anecdotally as people report feeling shocked by seeing characters on tv shows not practising social distancing – which will be a key consideration when rebuilding the currently diminished levels of public transport use.

As we become more aware of our own ‘personal space’, the public spaces of our towns and cities are also being scrutinized. Policy decision-makers must consider how transport infrastructure could be redeveloped to encourage retention of some of the positive changes brought to light through the reduction in travel we are currently experiencing. As they are afforded an opportunity to clearly see the space available, decisions must be made on how best to utilise that space in the future.

In the past, cities that have chosen to reclaim space given to cars find themselves with fewer road-related injuries, better air quality and a ‘village-feel’ for everyone – all strong arguments against reverting to this normal when the pandemic subsides. The Transforming Cities Fund bids and the Future Transport Zones focused on similar principles – lowering carbon emissions long term and encouraging a diverse range of environmentally friendly shared and active transport modes. A large number of the bid winners’ plans included developing spaces for cycling, as a greener and more individual way of travelling. Closing streets to car traffic would ensure buses can run on time, as many operators are reporting anecdotally right now.

Following the announcement of the government’s bus rescue package, operators will receive more than £167m over the next three months as long as vital services are kept running. Gerald Khoo, analyst at Liberum, said the package from Westminster “should leave the groups close to break-even in their UK bus operations, which implies positive cash flow through the lockdown phase”. Khoo believes Britain’s passenger transport groups, with the support now confirmed by the government, will survive the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and some form of normality will return after disruptions. What form that takes is not yet known, but whether its an evolution or revolution, there is significant scope for positive change within the transport sector.

Transport planning professionals have wanted to initiate a major change and development for years, and now we find change thrust upon us. Although a move from office-based working had been forecasted (very) long term, we now have proof of how it works and where it can’t. It is worth noting that major European countries are now adding their names to the list of capitals asking for the European Green Deal to be central to the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan, saying this is a unique opportunity to transform Europe into a sustainable and climate neutral economy. There is a need for “climate-smart recovery” plans that recognise the benefits that had been achieved by reduced transport impacts, and to relate to the Government’s new transport carbon reduction strategy.

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