Tuesday 28 April 2020

Lockdown Day 36 - Road to Recovery Part 2

In the first part of my essay entitled Road to Recovery here I consider the sorts of investments needed in the recovery from Coronavirus that also help us meet our climate change mitigation goals and also look at how local food has been rediscovered. This time, I discuss how transport policy needs to change and how the provision of good quality public services will help recovery for all sections of society.

During the lockdown, many employees have been working from home rather than going into the office, my partner among them. Whilst she does actually use public transport to get to work, it is expensive and the journey, including walking at either end, takes ninety minutes even when everything is running to time. Accidents and bad weather affecting the roads can extend the bus journey considerably or result in cancelled services. Having worked at home for the past four weeks, there is very little she is not able to do at home that would need her to be in the office, the only exception being some post being scanned into the online document management system but this is taken care of by someone in the office (and will, I suspect, be reduced over time as more invoices and bills go electronic). A survey of 3642 businesses conducted recently shows that nearly half of the respondents have staff working at home.

Traffic volumes in general have been down 65-70% during the lockdown here in the UK. Details can be found in the datasets used in the daily updates from the UK Government. There has been a significant reduction in air pollution. This is welcome considering the amount of traffic in the UK has been going up steadily over the past twenty years. The main areas that are affected by air pollution issues are cities and it is in the urban areas and wider suburban and urban fringe settlements that investment in public transport, electric vehicle infrastructure and cycle and pedestrian route networks needs to take place as part of the recovery.

We should be prepared to listen to those calling for abandonment of HS2 and use the money elsewhere. It is very clear that many businesses can operate with staff working at home, and the idea that many will need to travel to a business meeting or to an office as regularly as before is something that is being steadily demolished. High speed fibre rollout, starting in more rural and more socially deprived areas is now as necessary as many other utility services, in fact the need to include rebates in the same way that low income households can get for certain services on broadband is actually an imperative for social inclusion. The least well off are hit with not being able to access many governmental and local council services online, not get savings that others do on utility services, and indeed at the moment children in those households are put at a great disadvantage compared to more well off peers in terms of being able to access educational resources. Money from the HS2 pot could be redirected to urban light rail or electric bus services, in fact I worked out that the £100bn could pay for 66 32km urban tramway systems with some underground sections based on the average of such schemes in the UK (e.g. Nottingham) and abroad (e.g. Dortmund - metro system pictured above).

Milan and Paris are investing in cycle ways and closing streets to traffic in preparation for emergence from lockdown so that from day one there's reductions in pollution (a factor in the effects of COVID-19) and the switches that people are already making can be made permanent. I've been particularly impressed on visits last year to Dortmund and Muenster. In Muenster (left), 39% of journeys are by bicycle and I've never seen so many bikes and cyclists,even in the Netherlands! In Dortmund (below) you have fully integrated transport-trams,buses, trains,cycle routes and at many tram stops and elsewhere you have bikes for use with your ticket for "last mile" journeys to your destination.
EV (Electric Vehicle) charging points to the home should be rolled out asap to encourage quicker take up of EVs, new models of rental or finance and indeed types of vehicle to drive down costs, and indeed electric bikes are gradually becoming an option for some journeys although the range on the low-mid range models is not that far at present. There were quite a few people using electric bikes when we cycled across the Netherlands in Autumn 2018 and they are economical to run. 

There is also a case to look at re-introduction of rail services to some of the places that were cut off from the railway network during the 1960s and indeed there are some freight lines that could be brought back into use for passengers. In West Yorkshire over the past thirty years many railway stations have been brought back into use and a number of new stations built and the problem now is one of overcrowding at peak times, especially on routes running into Leeds. That being said, rail passenger numbers are predicted to still be well below the previous totals even after the lockdown is over, as some people will continue to work at home part or all of the week, or do not wish to be in crowded places with potential risk of infection with Covid-19. The last thing we want is more people switching back to car use but there are of course legitimate concerns to be addressed and rail franchise contracts may need to be looked at again in light of predicted future usage and safety concerns. 

So, the recovery from this crisis presents opportunities to invest in the transport and infrastructure links to embed low carbon emission behaviours and choices. 

However, in Part 3 of this I will look at is how communities and public services can be invested in and tailored to embed social equality and inclusion, and reduce the huge inequalities and poverty that now affect millions of people here in the UK. 

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