Covid-19 already has changed our travel needs and possibilities. It’s also meant our air is – for now at least – cleaner. We’ve written to RBKC to suggest transport policies to allow safe travel and keep our air clean.
Open letter to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
1st May, 2020
Dear Councillors Campbell and Thalassites, Dear Elizabeth, Dear Johnny
Coronavirus, social distancing, air quality and transport policy in RBKC
Firstly we would like to acknowledge the great efforts being made by so many, including Councillors of RBKC, to help our communities during this difficult period.
We are writing as local residents to encourage you to develop actions to allow safe pedestrian and cycle movement both now during this phase of the Coronavirus pandemic, and after. We and others are very willing to help you put the necessary plans together.
RBKC’s streets without changes will make social distancing near impossible as lockdown eases, and there is the threat of a return to previous, or worse, levels of traffic pollution. Lots of cities are putting in place plans now, and in London Lambeth announced their detailed plan this week – let’s not let RBKC be left behind.
This letter covers (1) the background to the issues; (2) lessons from other cities; and (3) some suggestions for what action to take now in RBKC within the appropriate legal framework.
There are three main themes that drive our views –air quality, social distancing and what people want.
Air quality across the globe, and in cities, has improved very significantly during this period, driven by reduced industrial production and, within cities such as London, reduced emissions from transport (which are the key contributor to bad air quality in cities).
Poor air quality is estimated to lead to 9,500 premature deaths each year in London alone, and has also been found by a Harvard University study to correlate directly to higher mortality from Covid-19.
Air quality had been improving in London prior to Covid-19, but in many areas, including in RBKC, remained at very poor levels. We want to protect the improvements that had been made in London, and retain as much as possible of the cleaner air that we are at this moment benefitting from.
Social distancing measures are likely to be in place for some time to come. In practice this means (1) people will be encouraged to minimise use of, or will themselves minimise use of, public transport (ie buses and the underground); and (2) pavements will be difficult to navigate while retaining sufficient spacing between people. Both of these already apply, and will be more apparent as and when “lockdown” is eased.
This means we need to re-think how we allocate the available space for people to move – as examples, we do not want people to be forced to spill over into motor vehicle lanes to maintain social distancing, and equally we want to make safe provision for those wishing to walk or cycle as a means of transport, keeping themselves and others safe while relieving pressure on public transport.
The WHO’s advice to us all is “Whenever feasible, consider riding bicycles or walking – this provides physical distancing while helping you to meet the minimum requirement for daily physical activity”.
This is important also for local businesses – in part to ensure people can safely access them as increasingly they are able to re-open, but also the possibility of re-allocating space for them to trade while respecting distancing as we discuss later.
What people want
We will all have seen in the recent weeks many people moving around by bicycle. For many of those it was either the first time in London, or something they had tried but hadn’t felt safe to do when London’s streets were full of cars.
This has been for commuting for key workers as well as for other essential travel such as shopping as well as exercise.
Groups across the country have been rallying around to help people with the increased demand. Our Better Streets member Jonathan Kelly has done wonderful work with Wheels for Heroes, successfully crowdfunding for bikes for NHS staff to travel safely, with other initiatives from Sustrans and others. This is backed up by surveys – the most recent we have indicating that 40% of key workers are planning to take up cycling due to Covid-19.
Even the Automobile Association’s recent survey reported people will want to walk and cycle more after this.
Lessons from other cities
Of course, no two places are precisely the same. But when we see below the range of cities taking action, it’s hard to argue that RBKC shouldn’t develop its own ambitious plans. From Adelaide to Auckland, Cleveland to Cologne, Dallas to Dublin, Milan to Montreal to Mexico City, to Paris and many many others – they know, as we know too, the issues which already exist and will get more pronounced as lockdown eases, and are making substantial plans to address these issues.
Milan is already well-known for its response to these issues, with the introduction of universal 30km/h limit (ie, +/- 20mph) and 22 miles of road previously dedicated to motor vehicles to be re-allocated to pedestrians and cyclists. In Brussels the entire city centre having a limit of 20km/h and priority given on roads to people on foot or bike, together with 40kms of new priority bike lanes, while in Paris 650km of cycle routes – including “pop-ups” – will be ready for mid-May when it is anticipated lockdown will be loosened. Meanwhile in Germany pop up cycle lanes are appearing in cities such as Berlin, with over 100 plans in progress across the country, and in Lithuania Vilnius has been widely reported for its commitment to allocate road space to expand trading areas for local businesses such as bars and restaurants.
These examples are just a few of those in Europe, and there are many from further afield, from New York creating converting traffic lanes to cycle lanes on some of its key roads or Bogota converting some 50 miles of motor traffic lanes to cycle use to reduce crowding on public transport and prevent Covid-19 transmission.
Within the UK the Scottish government has recently announced £10m of funding for pop-up cycleways and footpaths under a “Spaces for People” project.
What can we do in London, and in RBKC?
Within London we are seeing the first plans being made and put into action. Lambeth has put together a detailed action plan, available here https://moderngov.lambeth.gov.uk/documents/s116919/Appendix%201%20Covid%20Transport%20strategy%20response%20paper%20Final.pdf
This plan covers a sequence of phases from the situation today through to a future “new normal” phase. Key interventions have been determined, covering in particular targeted footway widening, improving the structure of healthy routes, developing low traffic neighbourhoods as well as ensuring proper co-ordination with TfL, other stakeholders and the overall legislative framework. The budget for the initial phase is estimated at £75k.
Of course the specific measures appropriate to RBKC will differ, however we think the overall approach of Lambeth – a full plan with detailed measures for action – is worth careful consideration by RBKC as it looks at the main menu of actions in the near term:
- Temporary pavement widening on high footfall pavements, for instance by suspending parking or coning off a traffic lane (this is now planned in neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham)
- Closing side roads to traffic, other than for access, to create low traffic neighbourhoods and space for distancing on narrower streets
- Prepare to restrict traffic on school streets when schools re-open to allow social distancing at school gates
- Create pop-up bike lanes by coning off safe cycling space on main roads
- Consider restricting busy shopping streets to walking, cycling and buses only
- Immediately implement a 20mph speed limit across the borough, building on the pilot schemes already in place in the borough and which neighbouring Westminster is now implementing
- Assess space re-allocation for local businesses, for example to see if terrace and outside space can be expanded, as well as ensuring generally that pavement access is sufficient for local traders to trade effectively and safely as and when permitted to do so
Although of course RBKC must act within the applicable regulatory framework, new guidance has been issued by the Department for Transport to help in some of these measures, and there is also the more general consideration of the wider duties to ensure safe movement on roads, which in this period of social distancing may naturally mean re-allocation of space.
Looking ahead, if we are successful in a plan to deal with the near-term we can be optimistic about fulfilling the goals of improving our air quality, and making our streets safer and healthier.
We realise this is a very challenging period for public services, and we would be delighted to contribute to putting such a plan together.
On behalf of Better Streets for Kensington and Chelsea
Felicity Buchan, MP
Will Norman, Transport for London
Cllr Robert Atkinson, Labour Group, RBKC