Following the news of Liverpool implementing temporary cycle lanes, Trevor Gornall takes a look at how the lockdown has fast-tracked safer cycling in Liverpool, in Part 3 of the Most Liveable Place blog.
Depending on where you live in the world, the first signs of hope and lifting of lockdown are beginning to appear as social distancing measures seem to have reduced COVID-19 infection rates. Although right now there is no approved vaccine, some nations and communities are already emerging with relatively low fatalities. After going into freefall, economies are slowly re-igniting as businesses reopen and employees gradually return to work.
Here in the UK, we are a little behind that particular curve. Depending upon whose numbers you rely upon we currently have 30-50,000 coronavirus-related deaths. And still steadily rising at several hundred more per day. There is a very solemn mood with sadness for those that have died and a growing questioning of why the UK now has the worst death rate in Europe. However, there is a clear desire from the government to get the economy moving and to demonstrate to the people that they are in control. But there is little consensus between the Prime Minister and the other First Ministers of the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who this week refused to adopt the UK Government's revised slogan “Stay Alert” preferring instead to maintain the more cautious and less ambiguous “Stay Home”.
The very clear government narrative has already evolved from that of no individual being financially worse off as a result of COVID-19 to one of “weaning” the public off furlough (the government’s scheme that is paying up to 80% of staff temporarily laid off during lockdown). Beginning this week with the Construction and Manufacturing industries, the government’s expectation now, for those living in England at least, is that employers need to be implementing social distancing measures, amongst others, to enable those who cannot work from home to return to their normal place of employment.
Regardless of the government's advice, many people are scared to leave their homes still. But many of those who are prepared to venture out and take their chances with the invisible virus, and those now told they should return to work, are going to struggle to physically get where they need to be.
Data from the 2011 Census suggests that while the vast majority of people in Liverpool travelled to work in a car they were driving (red), in many districts up to 30% of the population relied upon public transport for their daily commute (blue). Buses, in particular, are the mode of choice in what we might describe as the less affluent areas of the city.
Social distancing on public transport brings huge challenges. Estimates of the new capacity of buses and trains have been as low as 10%. So just how are people expected to get to and from the workplaces safely? This is not a problem that is going to evaporate in a few weeks. Some experts are suggesting social distancing may need to be maintained at least until the end of the year.
Maybe some percentage of the workforce can continue to work from home. Others may be able to stagger their office hours to avoid the typical “pre-vid” 9-5 rush. And the others? Will they all be buying cheap second-hand diesel guzzlers and clogging-up our tree-lined boulevards once again?
No way, not on my watch.
We now know that the coronavirus disproportionately affects those whose lungs have been damaged by air pollution caused by cars. COVID-19 has killed huge numbers of those people. We know this. We cannot knowingly continue to poison our citizens in this way. Even after a vaccine is (hopefully) found and administered, this might happen again with another virus in future. There must be an immediate emphasis on “weaning” ourselves off fossil fuels before they kill more of us.
Active travel (more walking and cycling) offers part of the solution. Not only will it help to get some of the country back to work in the short-term, but there will also be considerable future benefits in terms of lifestyle, environment and whisper it, the economy.
This is why the announcement this week from Liverpool City Mayor Joe Anderson, that the city is to immediately begin work on a £2M package for an additional 100KM of “pop-up” cycle lanes is so welcomed. The move comes on top of the already planned £45M remodelling of the city centre which includes 11KM of new permanent cycle lanes. Mayor Anderson has gone further, promising to be “as radical as possible” to ensure the city’s improved air quality is not diminished post-lockdown. Speaking on his own self-styled “Mayoral Question Time” the city leader pledged to make the planned temporary safe cycling corridors into the city a permanent fixture.
We had watched with increasing levels of frustration as other cities around the world, Milan, Brussels, Auckland, Oakland, Bogota, to name a few, and then closer to home, Brighton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Sheffield all announced similar plans to deliver safe space for cycling. Were we really going to miss this golden opportunity? Were we really going to just slip back into the bad old ways? For just a moment there it felt like we might.
But already on my regular exercise this week cycling around Sefton Park there were early signs of Mayor Anderson honouring his word. High-viz jackets belonging to the white van men of the city’s Transport Department were loitering at the entrance to the park and looking purposeful. Not only is Sefton Park a favourite training spot for runners and cyclists, but it’s also on one of the suggested safe cycling corridors into the city that has been earmarked for a pop-up cycle lane. Maybe, just maybe this was a site visit to get things rolling.
This subject moved me to do something I’ve never done before - writing to both the city Mayor and my local councillors to offer the benefit of my experience and insight on how this and other measures might be implemented. It’s something others in our little collective had done too - reaching out to anybody in a position of influence in the Liverpool City Region to offer our services to help get this done. The offer remains open.
This momentum will now be seized upon. So convinced are we of the long-term benefits to all the community that we cannot let this opportunity slip by. Yes, this will certainly help some employees return to work, but that is only the start. Today it was revealed that 25% of those confirmed to have died from COVID-19 in UK hospitals had diabetes. This is against a population of 6% with the disease. As a nation, we need to become more healthy and better understand such health risks and the benefits of positive lifestyle changes. The World Health Organisation advice is clear that even moderate levels of exercise will better enable you to fight off many infectious diseases.
A more active population breathing cleaner air will bring health and wellbeing benefits for years and generations to come. Reducing the burden on the health and social care system, such that it is after 10 years of austerity, will enable resources to be redirected to other worthy causes, giving our National Health Service in Liverpool City Region the opportunity to become just that, and not the National Illness Service that it is today. (I stole that line and I know I’m going to have to pay for it - I’m good with that though, it’s worth it.)
Thanks to a precious bunch of friends, I’m currently learning about Social Prescribing. Do you know you can now get a course of tango dancing on the NHS? True story. The concept is based upon addressing patients' needs in a holistic manner, focussing on “what matters to me”. How many of us cycle at least in part for our own mental health benefits? I’m raising my hand. Both hands. And a foot. How many times have you said, “To hell with work, I’m off on my bike for a couple of hours to clear my head”? I suspect a lot of us. The means to escape, independence and freedom are what got many of us hooked on cycling as kids. It’s part of what keeps us coming back, especially when the world starts to look a little too bleak.
It feels all too often we still treat the symptom and not the cause. What are the causes of obesity? Why are people addicted to substances? It sounds like a cliché but we are still shifting the focus from treating the disease to treating the person. I see a time in the not so distant future where GP’s will be able to write prescriptions for use of a bike and maybe some refresher sessions to get people back in the saddle and riding again. People will be able to get vouchers so that their filthy old rust bucket in the back of the shed can be rescued, then repaired and maintained by your local bike shop so they can get mobile again.
We are at the start of a revolution. There is no going back to the way we lived before. Too many people have had a glimpse of what the future looks like. There is a brighter way forward. We have seen the devastation caused by the way we lived. Even the declaration of a climate emergency caused only a handful of people to raise an eyebrow and take immediate action. Targets set in 2030 or 2040 are too opaque, they don’t tell us what we need to do today, now. Mañana, mañana. As I was reminded yesterday, if you keep putting things in the “too-hard-to-do” pile, don’t be surprised that they don’t get done.
Although this awful virus has had a devastating effect on hundreds of thousands of families and brought fear and upheaval to millions of households, it has given many of us the opportunity to pause and think about how we insulate against this kind of thing hurting us like this again in future.
Our fine city is taking these bold steps now. There will be opposition from sections of the community. Let them oppose. Let them bring their arguments. Let’s hear them out. Because the evidence is overwhelming and we need to start these conversations so that the change will not only be a top-down imposition through rules and legislation, people will just see that their lives improve and they will want more. Build it - they will come. The city where we live will become an (even more) attractive place to live and work. More employers will move to the area bringing more and better jobs. We all will prosper. The economy will thrive and Liverpool will become the Most Liveable Place.
Next up we will publish a piece by Rich Dunning who has provided a write-up of our pre-lockdown trip to Delft in Holland, where he shares some ideas that could potentially be implemented here in the Liverpool City Region.