Guest Blog: Covid 19 transport changes must help everyone get healthier

Guest Blog: Covid 19 transport changes must help everyone get healthier

In our latest guest blog, we hear from Nick Brelsford, Head of Partnerships at Sustrans North, to discuss the opportunities for active travel Covid-19 has created, to mark this year’s Car Free Day.

Today, 22 September, cities around the world are marking Car Free Day, to re-imagine their streets without cars. Congested roads could be transformed into healthy places for people to walk or cycle their journeys, with outdoor markets, cafes and open air yoga studios.

While many events have been cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions this year it seems particularly fitting to celebrate alternative ways of travelling. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for healthy outdoor spaces where people can travel on foot or bike to shops, services and workplaces within their local neighbourhoods.

During the Lockdown the reduced traffic on the roads allowed towns and cities to experience the benefits of neighbourhoods with less cars. Many people felt safe enough to travel by bike or on foot and air pollution levels dropped significantly. Some areas experienced upto 300% increase in travel by foot and bike and bike shops reported all time sales highs.

But as people return to work vehicles have flooded back to pre-lockdown levels on most roads. It’s vital that we maintain some of these positive developments to help more people keep active and to reduce air pollution.

Cycling and walking is often described as a ‘magic pill’ to cure many modern day chronic problems, including health conditions linked to physical and mental inactivity, as well as air pollution and traffic congestion. Research shows that obesity and air pollution are both linked to an increase in coronavirus cases.

So how can we encourage people to choose active travel? We know that a quality network of safe routes separate from traffic or in low speed areas is what most people need to feel able to walk or cycle their journeys.

As part of its response to the pandemic the government has recognised this and provided £250 million for local authorities to create temporary infrastructure on roads to allow people more space to walk and cycle while maintaining social distance. In its ‘Gear Change’ strategy the Government announced it will spend £2 billion on creating high quality networks to help more people walk and cycle.

In its latest Obesity Strategy the Government recognised that active travel has a clear role to play in tackling health problems linked to physical inactivity. As part of the strategy GPs will encourage people to walk or cycle in areas where new quality routes are built. Individuals will be ‘prescribed’ a cycle on loan which they may, in some cases, be able to keep and they will also be offered cycle training.

But to really make a difference to peoples’ health and happiness these transport changes must be part of a long term investment plan, much as we’ve seen for road building. They should be targeted at people across all sections of society, particularly those in the lowest income areas and disadvantaged groups.

Transport poverty studies show that lower income and disadvantaged groups also generally have lower car ownership. Typically these groups can be near to busy motorways and road junctions, so they suffer the most from traffic congestion and air pollution. Local authorities must actively engage with these communities at the beginning

Sustrans’ report with Arup, Cycling for everyone: A guide for inclusive cycling in cities and towns, highlights the need to involve local communities from the start and to prioritise high quality walking and cycling infrastructure in areas where transport options are limited. The report also stresses the importance of improving safety and creating paths which are accessible for all abilities and designed for all non-motorised vehicles, including wheelchairs, mobility scooters and push chairs.

Covid-19 continues to throw up huge challenges for our society. But there are also significant opportunities for change. This year, Car Free Day could help us start to imagine a healthier, more robust transport system with everyone in mind.

Nick Brelsford is Head of Partnerships for Sustrans North.  He works with a wide range of partners and potential partners, to influence decision makers and involve as many different voices in Sustrans projects.  He regularly presents and gives evidence on a range of subjects including active travel, air quality, inclusive design, and placemaking.

Sustrans is the national charity which makes it easier for more people to walk and cycle. It works in communities across the UK to create happier and healthier places for everyone. For more information look up

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