Mobility Car-Free London’s Road to Recovery: Car-Free After COVID

London’s Road to Recovery: Car-Free After COVID

Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

On deciding how to emerge from the global pandemic, London announced it was going to build back a healthier and safer city by making drastic improvements to its walking and cycling infrastructure. It now hopes to create the biggest car-free zone in the world – but what has London actually done so far, what challenges have been faced and how have they been overcome in the process?

Why Is Now the Time for London’s Car-Free Movement?

When the pandemic hit its peak in May 2020, public transport capacities in London were forced to reduce to only one fifth of pre-crisis levels to accommodate the new rules of social distancing. 

This posed a huge and unprecedented challenge as millions of people now had to make their daily commute in a different way – and if even a small percentage of these journeys were made by car, the city knew it would have serious consequences from the resulting gridlock and increase in air pollution to deal with.

Transport for London (TfL) had to act fast to transform the city’s streets to make sure that people had the option to cycle or walk safely, and ensure that infrastructure would be able to accommodate the increased number of people travelling actively.

Throughout the summer lockdown, cycling levels in London increased by 120 percent. TfL also estimates that upon emerging from the pandemic the total number of journeys being made by bike daily will increase tenfold, and walking fivefold.

What Is “Streetspace”?

The Streetspace programme is a series of measures introduced by TfL that aim to improve public health, encourage cleaner air and reduce carbon emissions by making sustainable transportation the easier choice.

Initiatives included building 90km of new cycle lanes, upgrading routes using temporary pop-ups, creating new walking and cycling only corridors in central London as well as widening pavements to ensure that pedestrians and wheelchairs could pass through easily.

The plan also embraced working with boroughs to pedestrianise streets on a local level – implementing things like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and restricting car access to schools during drop-off times.

But what has really changed for the lives of Londoners?

Director of investment planning at TfL Alexandra Batey said that one of the most promising outcomes of the programme is that people now feel so much safer about using alternative modes of transport:

“It has really allowed people to regain their confidence with cycling. As a result of this, we’ve seen that 58% of the public says they are in support of schemes like Streetspace which aim to improve infrastructure.”

“Even looking at my own experience, I’ve been able to take my children out on a bike for the very first time, and it’s been phenomenal to see that it has made such a difference to people’s lives and how they move in the city.”

Below we discuss the lessons learnt from London’s Streetspace programme, and things that other cities pursuing pedestrianisation projects should keep in mind…

Communication Is Key to Move Down a Gear on Car Use

Something that has been key to the implementation of the plan has been working with local people to encourage understanding about what the measures actually mean for them, Batey said.

“I think the most successful schemes are well-planned ones – they use strong analysis, local knowledge and have the support of local people and road users.  It’s about listening to the community and putting things in place that really help them.”

However, the project has also faced some challenges and public backlash, especially Low Traffic Neighbourhoods which had to be rolled out very quickly during the trial stage.

“You will always have some disagreement over measures”, Batey continued, “but from our  research we know that when you live in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, for example, you are more likely to support it whenever you can see the real benefits it generates for the community and local area.”

“This is why it is absolutely vital that we continue to work with stakeholders and local councils to work with their residents to ensure the right changes are made.”

Getting the Balancing Act Between Consultation and Research Just Right

Another key point is that wherever a traffic restriction or pop-up is put in place, public consultation and research must be considered equally in all design and planning. 

“We ensure this balance is met by using our own evidence-based research so we can understand on a strategic level where infrastructure is best placed in combination with discussions with local people – and it’s this that’s really critical.”

“Essentially it’s about having a cohesive relationship between evidence, connectivity, safety data and feedback from local communities to decide where measures are best placed.”

Consultation and public engagement is also about asking people what positive changes they have seen when their roads are healthier and having open conversations about both the challenges and benefits.

This can be achieved by contacting local businesses gain feedback to better understand if and how the temporary measures introduced are benefiting them or not, and how they can be improved.

Last but Not Least…

Collaboration between different levels of government and local organisation is also necessary.

“I think a lot of success comes from close co-operation between boroughs and local councils. Having a common goal is absolutely essential”, Batey said.

“There is nothing more powerful than having a community that supports a scheme all the way, and it is only once you have this that you will see the real changes start to happen.”

“London cannot afford to have a car-based recovery. The threats of air pollution and over-congestion are real, and this is why we need to be transparent about what our message is to get the right schemes on the ground as efficiently as possible.”

In essence, the three key takeaways from the implementation of the Streetspace programme can be summarised in three “C’s”:

  • Communication: for a project to be successful, the public must be kept informed to understand what the project is really about and how measures will affect them on a personal level.
  • Consultation: we need to work with local people, for local people. Evidence-based research and feedback from consultation with the public must be balanced to create the best possible measures.
  • Collaboration: all levels of government and local authorities should co-operate and work together towards a common goal to see that pedestrianisation is carried out in the most effective way.

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