A gear shift in attitude?


The future of travel infrastructure has been influenced more and more by environmental concerns in recent years – but in the midst of a world more carefully considering how we travel from A to B came sudden lockdowns and social distancing resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic.

An unprecedented spike in cycling and walking was the result, and a prioritisation of these travel methods – not just from an environmental perspective, but also to align with commuters’ new lifestyles.

Has this created a giant leap forward towards a more active world, where as we return to long-term planning post pandemic, the pedestrian and cyclist focused changes will remain a permanent fixture?

What did Covid-19 change?

A total of 280.5 billion vehicle miles were travelled in the UK in 2020, a decrease of 21.3% across all vehicle types. Whilst data has consistently shown a year-on-year declining trend of all vehicle traffic, the sudden drop by almost a quarter in car traffic (24.7%) during the height of the pandemic produced the lowest annual estimate of car traffic in 29 years.

Instead of reaching for their car keys in 2020, people were donning their walking shoes and cycling helmets. This saw a cycling increase of 45.7% from the year before – meaning that more of us were cycling than at any point since the 1960s.

In the US, 10% of Americans engaged with cycling in a new way in 2020, either riding bikes for transport, re-starting cycling after a number of years, or even taking to the saddle for the first time.

Highway authorities were required to act fast and temporary measures were introduced to accommodate the masses of non-motorised road users. Whilst urban roads saw whole sections cordoned off to allow for pedestrian social distancing, outdoor dining, and pedestrian-prioritised streets, cycling was also made safer with the switching of what were all-vehicle lanes to cyclist only.

All of this naturally led (alongside increased safer measures and awareness campaigns) to a welcome reduction in road deaths which declined by 11% in the year ending June 2021, alongside a 9% reduction in road casualties of all severities.

Are these changes permanent?

There is ongoing speculation as to whether these changes are permanent now crisis mode has given way to the opportunity to undertake long-term planning once more. Of the almost 90% of US cities that made changes to promote active transport methods, it is reported only 20% will keep the changes permanently.

Cycle lanes do look set to stay though, with the majority of cities who introduced them looking to keep them in place.

In Milan, planners have announced the creation of 750km of new cycle lanes by 2035, choosing to integrate their temporary measures into a long-term vision for travel through the city.

Recommendations and regulations

New recommendations and regulations have come into play including the European Commission’s Urban Mobility Framework, which calls for improved infrastructure, with walking and cycling being cited as important factors when it comes to reducing emissions. The Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation’s review of ‘Inclusive and Accessible Places’ also states the need for all users to be considered, and transport networks should make a positive contribution to the area.

Changes to the Highway Code have given more priority to cyclists in certain situations, and new cycle traffic lights have been introduced which will enable cyclists to move separately from motorised vehicles at some junctions throughout the UK.

A shift in attitude?

Walkers and cyclists appear to now be considered, perhaps for the first time, on an equal footing to other road users. Not only has active travel been identified as a key part of green recovery plans by the British Government, but the experience of travelling in this way is now being deliberated, suggesting a fundamental change in attitude towards these road users.

This represents a genuine opportunity for the ITS sector. Highway authorities and town planners going forward must give consideration to the wider road user, and having accurate data to hand showing how, where and when all road users travel can help ensure a more positive experience for everyone.

ITS solutions can maximise the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, and also ensure this crucial data is on hand. By incorporating this data into long-term planning we can ensure that not only is travel infrastructure safer and greener, but also more pleasant for all road users, whatever their travel choice.

Ian Hind is commercial director at AGD Systems, a UK manufacturer of ITS products engaged in traffic technology innovation for more than 30 years.

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