I wrote a while back about how I hoped people’s travel behaviours – both locally and on a global scale – would change in the post-pandemic world. This is the first in a short series of posts to reflect on those hopes and on my own travel actions and aspirations.
Many cyclists, walkers and urban residents alike will relate to the sense of relief and satisfaction that came with the quiet roads of the lockdown period. What a joy to be able to enjoy travelling by foot or bike without fear of being squashed at any moment, and to be able to move freely by car on those occasions when you really needed to. Oh, how I thought people would realise how much better life was for spending so much less of it in a car, realise the rewards of active travel, recognise that so many of their usual trips were unnecessary, and that life as it returned back towards ‘normal’ would lose a little of its car-centricity. This felt like such a tangible, almost inevitable outcome during those early weeks, and yet, as far as I can see now, couldn’t have been further than the truth of the situation that transpired.
What happened, in fact, was that as soon as people were allowed out and about again, the volume of traffic on the roads very quickly returned almost to pre-lockdown levels, compounded no doubt in my area by the combination of scorching summer weather, the proximity of one of Europe’s best beaches and the proportion of people still furloughed or off school. What gets to me though isn’t the number of vehicles on the road per se – disappointing as that is in itself – but the behaviour of those in charge of them: there has been a palpable upturn in aggressive driving, the proportion of inconsiderate and frankly dangerous drivers through the roof compared to pre-lockdown times (and it wasn’t great in these parts before).
Why is this? Understandably some groups of people are perhaps more stressed than usual, and hot weather is known to bring about higher levels of anger and antisocial behaviour in general, not just on the roads (case in point: the major incident that was declared in Bournemouth & Poole during the heatwave at the end of June). But what of the supposed increased sense of community spirit and greater good brought on by the pandemic? I’m struggling to see evidence of this anymore and am instead faced with ever-growing polarisation and individualisation; every person out for themselves, getting from A to B as fast as possible no matter the consequences. An avid cyclist, I’m bordering on frightened to go out in my local area because of how things are on the roads, and historically I’ve been one to suck it up and, keep my wits about me and deal with the dick-moves when they come; all part of being a ‘roady’; but it feels like it’s gone beyond that point now and that the level of risk is tangibly high enough to avoid certain areas at all costs.
This isn’t, however, meant as a sob story about my own life. Five people a day – cyclists and walkers – are killed on the roads my motor vehicles in the UK every day, a sad fact that is under-reported and not at all adequately dealt with. What’s more, this figure will inevitably increase if people’s driving doesn’t become more considerate.
And that’s not to mention the environmental impact brought on by the sheer volume of traffic on the roads: it has been reported that during lockdown – which obviously involved a huge reduction in all forms of transport, notably flying, as well as car driving – globally there was just a 5% decrease in carbon emissions (though this could be as high as 8%). Bearing in mind that the level of reduction required per year to limit global warming to acceptable levels is 7.6% per year this decade, you can see there is a long way to go. If a global lockdown barely generates such a reduction in emissions, as life returns to what people like to call ‘normal’, some drastic changes are needed in the way we live those normal lives, with the way (and amount) we travel being a key part of the puzzle.
In an encouraging development occurring as a direct result of the pandemic, local authorities in the UK have been able to draw on funding to make walking & cycling more practical and appealing. With a progressive council leadership currently in place in my own local area, this has led to rapid and meaningful action to stand up new bike lanes and ‘modal filters’ which make active travel more attractive and, crucially, will encourage people to think twice before making short journeys by car (because certain residential streets are no longer usable as through-routes by motor vehicle).
Whilst having a mixed range of impacts – making angry drivers angrier being a possible by-product, for instance – such measures are fairly quick and simple to implement yet could transform a local area once they’ve had time to bed in. our own local council is running consultations on new schemes which may lead to their becoming permanent as positive feedback comes in. at the same time, those people who would prefer to drive everywhere (but are physically able to do otherwise) may slowly come to terms with the ‘new normal’ and discover the benefits of active travel for themselves.
So there we have it: for me, both deepest disappointment and glimmers of hope in terms of the influence of COVID-19 on people’s travel choices. Of course, my views are shaped by my own frame of reference, both in terms of existing beliefs & values and the unique experience of my own local area. How do you relate to what I’ve written here, if at all? What were your own hopes ad aspirations for the impact of COVID-19 on the world, and have these been realised? I’d love to hear about it…