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Road traffic is on the increase, which impacts both cyclists and pedestrians.

Active travel groups seize their moment

The coronavirus crisis has opened up a window of opportunity for proponents of active travel – walking and cycling. With government funding on offer to encourage and facilitate active travel, they are sending their ideas to ESCC, the highways authority, and hoping they are taken on board. Nick Terdre reports.

All that fresh air which the the lockdown released by taking traffic off the roads seems to have gone to the heads of government ministers. Tory administrations are best known for their unwavering commitment to building roads, presiding over illegally high levels of air pollution and consistently failing to do anything about it, but now transport minister Grant Shapps is lauding the merits of cycling and walking and offering councils funds to facilitate active travel (road-building of course continues, with for example a recent £1 billion allocation for upgrading the A66).

Whitehall monies come in the shape of a £250 million emergency active travel fund, the first tranche of a £2 billion package first announced in February with the aim of encouraging cycling and improving local bus services. Because of social distancing restrictions, this is not the moment to encourage a mass return to public transport, so for the time being the spotlight is on active travel.

The funding is to be released in two rounds. In the first East Sussex County Council has been awarded £479,000, it announced today.

Transport minister Grant Shapps has caught the green transport bug.

Benefits of active travel

“During the crisis, millions of people have discovered the benefits of active travel,” Shapps said. “By cycling or walking, we’ve been able to enjoy this remarkably warm spring whilst sticking to the guidelines.

“In some places, there’s been a 70% rise in the number of people on bikes, whether it’s for exercise, or necessary journeys, such as stocking up on food.

“So, while it’s still crucial that we stay at home, when the country does get back to work, we need those people to carry on cycling and walking, and to be joined by many more…

“We also know that in this new world, pedestrians will need more space.”

And according to the ministry, “Pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors will be created in England within weeks.”

Green light

So the traffic lights have finally turned green for grassroot groups which have been campaigning, some for years, for dedicated facilities for cyclists and walkers, and running up against the inertia of a county council which seems to equate road-building with economic development and regeneration, and two years ago caused outrage by diverting funds from a walking and cycling package to bolster Sea Change Sussex road-building projects.

Using the cycleway on the promenade is one thing, venturing into the road on a bike is another.

On behalf of Hastings Urban Bikes, the Hastings Greenway Group and the recently formed local Living Streets group, which aims to make “walking …the natural choice for everyday local journeys,” Ian Sier told HOT that the groups were “working together and independently to formulate proposals for walking and cycling schemes and ‘road reallocation’ alterations.

“The aim is to see safe cycling routes and infrastructure installed, improvements made to the space available for pedestrians and for the construction of sections of the Hastings Walking & Cycling and Greenway network.

“The groups have sent their ideas and projects to the East Sussex County Council transport officers who are gathering information and ideas and will be working with Hastings Borough Council and, we hope, local groups to prepare a funding bid to Government both for short-term measures and for longer-term projects.”

Some of the ideas call for a radical rethink about how the town centre and other busy parts of the borough function, an approach which is going on all around the country, Sier says. The Living Streets group have submitted proposals for creating traffic-free roads in busy shopping areas.

Sier said he expected many of these ideas, proposals and projects to soon be given some publicity as local authorities and organisations debate what should be put forward for government funding. In a recent statement on its response to the £250m grant, Hastings Borough Council gave no details of the proposals it had submitted to ESCC.

Greenway moves

The groups welcome ESCC’s recent decision to push ahead into detailed design and construction of the walking and cycling route from Silverhill to Queensway, but are calling for the other two sections of the network that ESCC are working on to be brought forward, and will be proposing a revised cycling and walking route from the promenade to Station Plaza.

Other proposals being put forward include a call for 20mph speed limits and other measures to make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists, wider pavements, including so-called ‘pop-up’ alterations and more cycle parking facilities.

The relative absence of road traffic due to the lockdown appears to be coming to an end. Official statistics show that car usage in particular is on the increase: from a low point of 22% on 12 April, by 1 June it was back to 65% compared with the equivalent day in the first week of last February. Commercial vehicle levels, which never fell so low, are also rising.

Sier identified this as an issue which needed addressing. “The recent surge in cycling during the COVID 19 lockdown tempted many individuals and families to start cycling on the quiet roads, but the roads are busy again and are seen as too dangerous by most people who would like to travel by bike,” he said.

“There is absolutely no way of making any significant progress on encouraging active travel by bike without an infrastructure of safe cycling routes that are off road as far as possible. If the new Government funding is used effectively this is one barrier to active travel that can be overcome.”

The improvement in air quality made possible by the scarcity of road traffic also looks set to be reversed as traffic levels increase once more. Although HOT is not aware of recent statistics for the UK, data in China show that leading indicators of air pollution have returned to the pre coronavirus levels of a year ago.

Posted 21:02 Friday, Jun 5, 2020 In: Home Ground

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