What could the future of transport look like after lockdown?
- Credit: Simon Parkin
From car free streets and socially distanced shops, to e-scooters and cycleways, Jessica Frank-Keyes finds out whether the coronavirus lockdown is the start of a revolution of travel and transport systems in Norfolk...
Environmental campaigners in Norwich are urging the council to put cleaner and greener transport at the centre of its vision for the city’s future, as the region emerges from lockdown restrictions.
With carbon emissions thought to have dropped by a sixth, as UEA research has revealed, a Green Party councillor, a car-free city campaigner and an advocate for e-scooters have all highlighted the lockdown’s “silver lining” of cleaner air and clearer streets and urged the government to seize the opportunity to transform the way we travel.
Meanwhile, the county council welcomed a tranche of further government investment into transport and said improving the region’s infrastructure remained “as much a priority as ever” - in order to get the economy moving, and get people back to work.
But Norfolk is still waiting to hear what its share of the £2bn fund will be - and campaigners are urging councillors to introduce schemes that go beyond simply easing congestion.
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Matt White, from the Car Free Norwich campaign, said he was “heartened” by the transport secretary Grant Shapps’ announcement - although he stresses that the £2bn was not new money. “It was a more positive tone,” he said.
And Jamie Osborn, Green Party city councillor, added: “I’m concerned about there being an increase in car travel - now is the time for the government to go all out on making sure people can walk and cycle.”
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Mr White, 38, said councils needed to make “major changes within weeks” to allow people to socially distance properly.
“I’m disappointed that the county council haven’t announced anything yet but I’m told they’re looking into how to do it properly,” he said.
But Martin Wilby, Norfolk County Council’s cabinet member for highways, said the council was actively working with districts to determine what changes were needed where - and was taking short-term measures including ordering in additional supplies of traffic cones and barriers to ensure pedestrians could follow the two-metre guidelines.
Local councils - including in Thetford and Southwold - are debating new cycle routes and the possibility of temporary one-way zones for pedestrians.
“Despite this being a horrific pandemic, there have been silver linings, and if we don’t engage with them, it’s a tragedy,” Mr White added.
One such silver lining, he said, would be creating an entirely car free city, which would see people engaging in more active transport - such as walking and cycling - as opposed to the paradox of driving to the gym.
“Some gym car parks are bigger than the gyms themselves,” he said. “Covid-19 is a respiratory disease. If your lungs are damaged at all you’re more likely to suffer the worst effects of the illness.
“It’s obvious really that we need to try and keep pollution as low as it is now. Transport is also the largest sector for carbon emissions in the UK.
“I’m hoping that lockdown was long enough for people’s perceptions to change.”
Mr White said he felt the city was “very well-suited” to becoming car free. “I think it has to happen everywhere which is an urban centre, but Norwich could be especially well-placed to lead the way,” he said, noting the city’s fairly flat topography and small size.
“Another reason is air pollution. I’ve got quite severe lung disease and it was out of frustration that nothing was changing and no one was really being discouraged from driving.
“There’s so much research about how children in particular are affected. We did see a huge increase during lockdown in walking and cycling - people rediscovering bikes in the shed - because the roads were safe to use.”
While Mr Osborn, Green councillor for Mancroft, said he hoped lockdown meant a change towards people’s overarching attitudes towards transport.
“People are really enjoying the clearer air and clearer streets,” he said. “It’s been a saving grace for a lot of people who have been stuck inside. It’s just a safer environment.”
Commuting distances have long been an issue for Norfolk’s residents - with the introduction of ‘Norwich in 90’ train trips between the city and London Liverpool Street, and the campaign to dual the county’s A47 road all aimed at cutting the journey times to other major cities.
But could the proliferation of home working - and usage of teleconferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams - see a move away from the need to be physically present in order to be productive, and Norfolk’s relative isolation becoming an unexpected positive?
Mike Stonard, Norwich city councillor for sustainable growth, said: “It is also possible, in future, that many more people will be working from home, as the pandemic has provided a practical demonstration of how home working can be done easily and effectively.
“That would reduce traffic flows into the city but it’s too early to know exactly what will be the impact of all these different factors.”
Mr Osborn added: “Maybe it will encourage more people to work from home rather than a two hour commute into London or even into Norwich.
“The links between health and transport are becoming really clear now. People feel a lot better because of the clearer air and lack of air pollution.
“It’s not just about getting from one place to another as quickly as possible. It’s about health and enjoying it - and the mental health benefits of walking and cycling are clear.
“I think it’s really important that we encourage people to live locally and travel locally rather than people living in dormitory towns and relying on cars.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) is also set to begin e-scooter trial schemes in cities across the country, as they assess whether to legalise them in the UK.
And e-scooter user Simon Crawford said he is keen for Norwich to “embrace” the new technology.
“With sensible and careful usage, they are eco-friendly, have no emissions, are great for short-distance commuting, smaller than a bicycle, and so cheap to charge up over night,” he said.
“These scooters are fun, they encourage people off public transport. You get heaps of fresh air, which will in turn get fresher as fewer people use motorised petrol or diesel transport. “You can even feel it working your legs and core muscles too as you ride and steer it.”
Mr Crawford, 60, who is trying to secure Clive Lewis’ support for a trial scheme, said he hoped the government would “see sense” and legalise e-scooters, including for private use as well as rental schemes similar to Norwich’s Beryl Bikes.
He added: “I agree with there being a 15mph speed limit - and helmets must be worn and suitably gloves too. Possibly even some form of third party insurance cover as a minimum.
“There will be accidents, but people have always historically had accidents even on motorcycles, disability scooters and even normal bicycles.
“Let Norwich face the 21st century with gusto and be seen to embrace technology that is already available and easy to use.”
And the county council have indicated they would support a trial of the e-scooters.
Mr Wilby said: “It’s very much on my radar. If we should get the opportunity to trial this in Norwich I’d welcome that with open arms.
“We’ve got the Beryl Bikes working well so it might work with them also.”
He added that people had been encouraged to sanitise the bikes during the pandemic, and said: “We’ve had good feedback on the scheme - I know there are health workers using them to get to work - and we have e-bikes set to arrive in June.”
The Conservative councillor for East Depwade said the council was keen to start work on transport projects again.
“We’ve got to get the economy going again and get people back to work and get things moving,” he said. “Our infrastructure is as much a priority as ever.”
In the short-term, the council may need to widen footpaths, and introduce more cycle ways, he said.
“Shops and retailers are opening already and working differently - we’re going to need to help so people can access them safely.”
And he added that despite the city being set to receive millions fewer than it had originally hoped for under the Transforming Cities funding, the £32m came with an additional £5m either side - which the council are lobbying the government hard to receive, in order to deliver further projects.
“You could do a great deal with that,” he said. “We’ve got several schemes we’re working up which will come up at the transport committee.”
Highways improvements have also been taking place during the pandemic, with the council taking advantage of clearer streets to carry out roadworks.
“Currently we’re at about 50pc less traffic on our roads so we’re not getting congestion at the moment,” Mr Wilby said. “It will be interesting to see what the public transport usage will be.”
And he said the government’s encouragement for people to get back to work - while avoiding public transport - would “hopefully” not see the city needing to build new car parks to accommodate a rise in drivers.
Residents could be encouraged to use facemasks on buses and trains, he said, while First Bus are already working with the council on schemes to promote “cleaner and greener” public transport usage.
“Hopefully, we will see new ways of travelling around emerge,” he said.
But Mr Stonard said the city council had been encouraging cycling and walking rates “for years”.
The Labour member for Catton Grove said: “Cycling levels have increased dramatically as a result of our pedalways programmes. Many more people have been cycling and walking during the pandemic and the hope is that this will continue into the future, as things gradually return to relative normality.”
He added that the city council had “already pedestrianised large areas of the city centre, taking out noisy, smelly, polluting traffic” which offered a boost to the “pleasant and vibrant” area.
But Mr Stonard said while he welcomed the government’s funding announcement, it would have to “play its part” and “provide the resources” to develop projects.
“People may be reluctant to go back to public transport too quickly following the pandemic and will want to be reassured that they are safe in enclosed environments such as buses,” he said.
“The situation presents an opportunity to move to cleaner and greener transport more permanently, but the government will have to play its part and provide the resources.”
Commenting on the funding announcement, the transport secretary said: “During this crisis, millions of people have discovered cycling - whether for exercise or as a means of safe, socially-distanced transport. When the country does get back to work we need those people to stay on their bikes and be joined by many more.
“Otherwise, with public transport’s capacity severely restricted at this time, our trains and buses could become overcrowded and our roads gridlocked – holding up emergency services, critical workers and vital supplies.”
He added: “We know cars will continue to remain vital for many, but as we look to the future we must build a better country with greener travel habits, cleaner air and healthier communities.”
• What do you think the future of transport should look like after coronavirus? Email reporter Jessica.Frank-Keyes@archant.co.uk