Local authorities are “expected” to reallocate road space to pedestrians and cyclists “within weeks” to help the country get back on its feet when lockdown is lifted. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says he is hoping for a “transformative change” to transport in towns and cities.

In guidance issued to councils, Shapps said “millions” had taken to cycling, and he wanted them to be joined by “millions more” when the lockdown is lifted. He also expressed a desire to offer pedestrians more space, claiming there was a “significant link” between Covid-19 recovery and fitness. Walking, he said, could make the country more “resilient”.

As a result, Shapps has urged councils to redistribute road space to encourage people to walk and cycle more, as well as making social distancing more feasible. Measures suggested include the introduction of more 20 mph speed limits on urban roads, as well as turning lanes of road into dedicated cycle lanes.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has also recommended pedestrianising streets by restricting access for motor vehicles, changing junctions to accommodate more cyclists and the creation of “school streets”, which restrict motor traffic at pick-up and drop-off times. The DfT points out that none of these measures is new, but the department wants “a step-change in their roll-out” to ensure a “green restart”.

Cyclist on cycling lane near Tower Hill in London

Shapps said the so-called ‘first stage’ of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy would be worth £250 million. However, the new guidelines form part of a £2 billion investment in walking and cycling.

Addressing councils and highways authorities, Shapps said: “The government expects local authorities to make significant changes to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians. Such changes will help embed altered behaviours and demonstrate the positive effects of active travel. I’m pleased to see that many authorities have already begun to do this, and I urge you all to consider how you can begin to make sure you do what is necessary to ensure transport networks support recovery from the Covid-19 emergency and provide a lasting legacy of greener, safer transport.”

Walking kids to school

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, welcomed Shapps’ statement, but said councils would need “long-term certainty” of infrastructure funding to make “widespread” improvements.

“Councils are leading local efforts to protect communities from coronavirus and will be central to the nation's recovery,” said the LGA’s transport spokesman, Cllr David Renard. “We are pleased the Government has announced measures today to allow councils to help the country transition to the new way we will need to travel around, including to and from work. This new way of travelling is likely to become part of everyday life once the coronavirus measures are lifted and beyond.

Cyclist in London

"If we are to achieve a sustained increase in active and cleaner travel, councils need long-term certainty of infrastructure funding. Local control over infrastructure and public transport budgets would enable them to deliver the widespread improvements to promote more active travel. This will not only improve public health but will reduce congestion and pollution and enable the creation of safe and attractive public transport networks.”

Meanwhile the RAC said the success of the new measures would depend on whether the public had changed attitudes to private cars, and the needs of motorists should still be considered.

Cyclist and car traffic in Wiltshire Bradford on Avon UK

“The success of new walking and cycling schemes will depend on how attitudes to using cars for short journeys have changed over recent weeks, and if those attitudes translate into people permanently switching to active forms of personal transport,” said the RAC head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes. “It’s very likely that while traffic volumes are currently down, people will inevitably return to the comfort and convenience of their vehicles for some journeys when lockdown restrictions are eased, especially where they need to cover longer distances or have a longer commute.

“The needs of all road users must therefore be carefully considered. For example, authorities will need to be careful about reducing road space in certain areas as they could end up creating problems if traffic demand outweighs those opting to use a bike.”