Britain will invest £2 billion in cycling and walking in response to the coronavirus

Cycling beats the Tube for avoiding the coronavirus.
Cycling beats the Tube for avoiding the coronavirus.
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Hird
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UK transport secretary Grant Shapps announced a £2 billion ($2.5 billion) package to put cycling and walking “at the heart of” Britain’s post-coronavirus transportation plan. The idea is to reduce crowding on public transport and gridlock on roads.

While Shapps said the measures would contribute to a greener and healthier recovery in the wake of the pandemic, he also noted that with a two-meter social distancing rule, there is only capacity for one in 10 passengers in many parts of the public transport network.

“Moving beyond Covid will be a gradual process, not a single leap to freedom, so when we do emerge the world will seem quite different,” he said in a daily Downing Street press briefing. More cycling and walking presents a “health opportunity” for people to become fitter and improve their physical and mental health, he said.

Data suggests this plan will be an uphill battle. According to Cycling UK, cycling accounted for 1.7% of all trips in 2018, a figure that has barely changed for at least 17 years. While 16.7% of people cycled or walked to work that year, two-thirds drove or took a taxi. Cycling made up only 1% of the mileage accumulated by all vehicular road traffic.

Across the North Sea, meanwhile, bicycles are prioritized over cars in the Netherlands, and the Danish capital Copenhagen is one of the most cycling-friendly cities on the planet. In 2016, 41% of trips to work and school in Copenhagen took place on bicycles; the city’s goal, by 2025, is 50%. At rush hour, parents navigate major roads with kids in their bikes or cycling beside them. There’s a famous “traffic playground,” where kids under eight go to learn to ride a bike in a mini-version of the city, with traffic lights and pedestrian walkways and other urban features. According to one study, 76% of Danes feel safe biking; in London, 96% reported feeling unsafe out on the roads.

The plan

The UK government announced a £5 billion investment in public transport in February but had not yet specified how it would be spent. A spokeswoman for the transport department said the £2 billion figure for cycling and walking was “in response to coronavirus” but part of that overall £5 billion investment.

The plan includes £250 million for emergency interventions to make cycling and walking safer—including pop-up bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and cyclist-only streets, Shapps said. The government will bring forward a “national cycling plan” in June to try and double cycling (and increase walking) by 2025. It will trial the use of e-scooters to get rental schemes up and running in cities, and publish statutory advice for councils to accommodate cyclists and walkers.

Shapps pitched it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change how people travel, and said that one of the few good things to come from this crisis will be lower levels of air pollution, which he said results in 20,000 excess deaths a year.

He also highlighted that outside of London, half of journeys are less than three miles long and a 5% increase in cycling would amount to 8 million fewer car journeys and 9 million fewer rail trips.

The policy announcement comes the day before prime minister Boris Johnson will announce changes to the country’s lockdown rules, in place since March 23. Shapps said the plan was intended for planning in the future, since the guidance now remains to stay home.

Getting around Britain, which is densely populated, will be no easy task. Shapps said he had met with Google, Microsoft, and Citymapper to develop data and apps to help the public view crowding across the travel network in real-time.

The plan also includes £10m for car charging points on streets and accelerating the filling of potholes, with Schapps acknowledging that cars will remain a mainstay of transportation.

“The car will be a vital part of what’s required,” he conceded.