The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of us to look at things very differently in almost every aspect of our daily lives. We are now familiar with ‘social distancing’, with wearing our face coverings, and in altering our work and social patterns to fit with our public health requirements.
The way we travel has similarly changed, and over the last six months many more of us have walked and cycled when undertaking routine journeys. The enforced changes in our lives have shown us that it is possible for nearly all of us to walk or cycle more often, and we have embraced this, particularly in the early days of lockdown in the spring. People have switched to shopping (and doing many other things) more locally: short journeys of 15 to 20-minutes which can readily be done by walking and cycling. This has benefits to the local economy as well as the more obvious benefits to health, wellbeing, and air quality.
This has been supported by significant investment from government in emergency travel measures and investment in infrastructure. In Leeds, these additional measures build on improvements funded through Connecting Leeds, which included the transformation of Greek Street, undertaken by Leeds City Council in partnership with local businesses. This has given the street a modern, spacious new look and created a traffic-free zone for more people to enjoy every single day, showing how businesses can thrive when high quality traffic free spaces are created in the right context.
There are significant benefits that we gain from being more active in our daily lives. Walking and cycling more often has significant health benefits. Being more active not only provides the more obvious physical benefits that help us to reduce obesity and address consequent health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, but also plays a positive role in good mental health. Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths (equal to smoking) and according to the Department for Transport’s Gear Change – A bold vision for cycling and walking, is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion annually (including £0.9 billion to the NHS alone).
As a Chamber of Commerce, helping our members and their employees to be more active is therefore something that has widespread benefits. Being more active in our daily lives, by walking or cycling to work for instance, promotes a healthier more productive workforce. The Department for Transport’s Gear Change – A bold vision for cycling and walking also notes that 20-minutes of exercise per day cuts risk of developing depression by 31% and increases productivity of workers.
However, there are threats to embedding active travel as a constant in our daily lives. For many communities, walking and cycling is unattractive, unpleasant, and feels unsafe. For instance, there are many inner-city communities in Leeds, Bradford, and our smaller towns whose local areas are dominated by major roads and other infrastructure that serves town and city centres, but at the same time acts as a barrier to reaching the very centres that provide employment, shopping and leisure opportunities. Many of these communities are characterised in transport terms by low car ownership and high levels of bus use – the latter being challenging at present with reduced levels of service and occupancy, the latter driven by social distancing requirements and concerns around public health.
So, looking forward, how do we embed the habits of the last six months to enable more walking and cycling? And what investment is needed to remove the barriers that prevent some of our communities making short journeys to their local centres?
The answers need not be complex or expensive, though they will be different in each of the unique communities in which we live and work across Yorkshire. Preventing rat-running on residential streets, providing high quality crossings of main roads and other barriers, and investing in high quality walking and cycling infrastructure on main roads where needed will all help embed the habits of the last six months in the long term.
Alastair Gordon, Arup and Chair of WNY Chamber Transport Group
Martin Revill, Mott MacDonald and Chair of WNY Chamber Quality Places and Spaces Group @MartinRevill1