Many Britons will have to get used to driving less if the country is to avoid gridlock on the roads once coronavirus restrictions ease, and councils must provide better routes for cycling and walking, transport experts say.
Government statistics show motor traffic is almost back at pre-lockdown levels, and only 59% of employees have returned to their workplaces. One study predicts that with health concerns reducing the use of public transport, up to 2.7 million more people could end up using cars for commuting trips alone.
Cycling UK, the campaign group that commissioned the findings from a series of road transport experts, is urging the government and local authorities to push ahead with schemes to boost walking and cycling as alternatives.
In May the government announced £250m in emergency funding for councils to implement schemes to boost active travel, including wider pavements, coned-off cycle lanes and so-called low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), where some residential streets are blocked to through motor traffic.
However, some such schemes have been abandoned after angering some locals and politicians. A pop-up cycle lane in Reigate, Surrey, was removed within days following pressure from the local Tory MP, Crispin Blunt. In London several schemes have been abandoned or rolled back, including a bike lane on the busy Euston Road and an LTN in Lewisham.
Rachel Aldred, a professor of transport at Westminster University, who was one of the experts consulted by Cycling UK, said non-car transport methods should be encouraged. “Without such changes, motor traffic will only grow further as and when [restrictions] are relaxed,” she said. “[Doing] nothing means more traffic jams, more road injuries, and more pollution.”
Another of the experts, Richard Allsop, emeritus professor of transport studies at University College London, said people who usually drove would face some difficult choices on whether to endure – and contribute to – gridlock, or seek alternatives.
“All users of motor vehicles have to find by trial and error how best to make their journeys, and perhaps which to give up making in their vehicles, as they collectively get used to the enhanced – but from their point of view reduced – network,” he said.
“This will be a bit uncomfortable for quite a lot of us and really awkward for some. But our share in this discomfort is just our tiny share of the vast price that needs to be faced up to to reduce emissions, decarbonise transport and do our country’s bit in keeping climate change manageable for future generations.”
Duncan Dollimore, the head of campaigns at Cycling UK, said ministers had correctly warned of the looming problems on the roads and had acted with the £250m emergency fund. “Unfortunately, a vocal minority of people and MPs have taken exception to these schemes, blaming them as the sole cause of congestion.”