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Over the weekend the Government urged more people to walk or cycle to work, rather than switch from public transport to cars, when lockdown is lifted to ease congestion. While there’s much to like about this, particularly from an environmental perspective, how realistic a strategy is it to deal with likely future congestion?
While no explicit target was set, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that even if 5 per cent of people switched to cycling, it would ease pressure on both roads and public transport, with the latter likely to be running at reduced capacity for some time. Five per cent sounds like a small figure. But there are two things to consider.
The first is that not everyone lives in walking or cycling distance. According to the latest 2011 Census, 43 per cent of commuters live within reasonable walking distance of their workplace (within 5km), and 64 per cent live within reasonable cycling distance (within 10km). Clearly these options aren’t open to everyone.
The second is that the impact of people switching to walking or cycling in already car dependent places will do little to ease pressure on public transport. Someone deciding to cycle to work in rural Herefordshire would contribute to the Government’s national number of 5 per cent of commuters cycling. But just 2 per cent of people here use public transport to get to work. So someone switching would have no impact on congestion, the issue the Government is concerned about, because most people drive already.
The same applies in some cities too. In Telford, just 5 per cent of people use public transport. The vast majority of people will continue to get in their cars after lockdown, and so there will be very little additional pressure on the transport system here either.
Where people switching would have an impact is in cities where transport usage is high. The 2011 Census shows that in cities or large towns where at least one in 10 people commuted via public transport – 36 in total – 6.4 million lived within 10km of their place of work.
If this much smaller pool of people who realistically may cycle to work chose to do so, it would require 19 per cent of commuters to switch if the Government was to meet the 5 per cent national figure. This would be an increase from 4.5 per cent of commuters cycling to 23 per cent, a five fold increase.
This is a big ask. There are a number of reasons why people who currently use public transport are disinclined to cycle, such as safety, bike stores and showers at work, the weather, or motivation to cycle given the physical effort it requires. In other words, there are plenty of reasons not to cycle, even if the option is available.
There are a number of things that could be done. More cycling only lanes, like London’s Cycle Superhighways, or switching of roads from car use to walking and cycling, as Milan intends, helps to address safety issues. Legalising the use of e-Scooters, which the Government is trialling, removes the physical exertion required. The introduction (or in London’s case the re-introduction) of congestion charges in city centres. And changing approaches to planning to encourage more density, so bringing a larger share of people within walking or cycling distance of their workplace, is another, longer term option. There aren’t, unfortunately, any fixes to the weather.
Most of these efforts need to be targeted if they are going to have any semblance of success. Of the 6.4 million people who live within 10km of their work where congestion is likely to be (an even bigger) issue post lockdown, 37 per cent live in just one place – London. And a further 20 per cent live in the next two largest cities – Manchester and Birmingham.
The impact on congestion and the environment of more walking or cycling would be much welcome. But it’s unlikely to do much solve the looming public transport problem our biggest cities are facing.
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