Months after the UK was plunged into a nationwide lockdown, we’re starting to get moving again. All across the country, school gates have been re-opening, people are returning to work and shops are welcoming customers back. And with all of this comes the inevitable rise in traffic on our roads and on our streets.
People driving, cycling and walking – all vying for space at a time when space matters more than ever before. How can we make sure they can get around easily as we begin to negotiate our way through this new normal? Getting our roads, people and goods moving again is vital to our city’s economic recovery – how can we make this happen while ensuring that people can stay safe and keep their distance from others?
In short, how do we travel in an era of social distancing?
We recently announced our Green Transport Recovery Plan, which sets out a range of bold and ambitious measures to support social distancing and help people travel safely as we emerge from the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Following a significant rise in people walking and cycling over the past few months, it also outlines a number of schemes that will help to cement these new healthy travel behaviours. These are all being delivered using a combination of experimental and temporary traffic regulation orders, which enable us to make changes quickly and consult while they are in place. This means we have been able to react in a swift and timely manner that has been necessary to keep people safe at this critical time.
Most of the schemes in the plan are completely new; others, like the cycle lanes on The Avenue, were already planned in line with our Local Transport Plan and Transforming Cities Bid, which set out our long-term aims to encourage sustainable travel and clean up our air. Now, with the need to respond rapidly to the immediate challenge of social distancing, we have an unexpected but valuable opportunity to trial all of these changes in an experimental capacity while giving everyone a little more room to move.
Widened pavements on Portland Terrace give people walking more space
For those who would ordinarily take the bus, this is a game changer. Just under 30% of households in Southampton are without access to a car and would normally rely on the bus to get around. Bus occupancy is currently reduced to around 20% in order to accommodate social distancing – this means that only 13,000 people out of the usual 64,000 who typically travel by bus on a single day in Southampton will be able to do so. And our local bus operators simply don’t have the 2,500 extra buses going spare that would be needed to take care of the remaining 51,000 passengers. Schemes like the new temporary bus lanes along Bitterne Road West will certainly help to counteract these issues, enabling public transport providers to operate more reliably while passenger numbers are limited on individual buses. In turn this will support people to travel by bus more easily and safely while the challenge of social distancing remains.
New bus lanes on Bitterne Road West are also accessible for people cycling, taxis and private hire vehicles
But for those unable to travel by bus or car, cycling provides an obvious viable alternative. We know that most trips in Southampton are under three miles – an easily cyclable distance for the majority of people. But to get more people cycling, we need to make sure it’s safe and accessible for everyone. Even before the lockdown came into effect, we knew that people wanted safe, separate space to help them cycle more. Indeed, the recent Bike Life study conducted by Sustrans in Southampton found that 71% of local residents would support more physically separated cycle tracks. Now, as we continue to live with social distancing, that need for physical separation has become about much more than road safety.
To respond to these challenges, we’ve installed temporary cycle lanes on The Avenue and Bassett Avenue, Hill Lane, Dale Road and Portswood Road. These provide an easy way to get around while keeping people apart from those walking and driving. Similarly, separate cycle lanes and widened pavements such as those on Portland Terrace will reduce the conflicts encountered by people walking. This will minimise the anxieties associated with getting out and about on foot, particularly for partially sighted people and those with other disabilities that make the current challenges all the more difficult.
'Pop-up' cycle lanes are now in place along The Avenue/Bassett Avenue
Of course not everyone can walk or cycle, whether for leisure or everyday journeys. But even those who can’t serve to benefit from those who do. People walking and cycling mean cleaner air, less congestion on the roads and freed up space for those who have no alternative but to drive. Choosing to walk or cycle also helps to boost your immune system, cut down on air pollution and keep you at a healthy weight – all great for staying fit and well at a time when concerns around our health are quite frankly paramount.
Ultimately all of the measures we’re implementing right now are temporary. Like the many changes we’ve had to adjust to during these fast-moving times, these are temporary measures to keep us all safe and healthy as our city begins to recover from Covid-19.
But as well as keeping us all safe, all of the changes being trialled will also enable us to walk and cycle with confidence; travel with greater ease; breathe cleaner air; enjoy quieter, safer neighbourhoods; and ultimately feel healthier and happier. In this way, the Covid-19 pandemic – despite all the immense difficulties and countless restrictions on our civil liberties – has afforded us a quite unique opportunity for something truly positive and transformational.
We remain wholeheartedly committed to building a green city and addressing Southampton’s pressing air quality problem. These goals are at the heart of our Green City Charter and our Local Transport Plan. So too our ten-year Cycling Strategy and, most recently, our innovative Transforming Cities Bid. Earlier this year, the latter was awarded £57m from the Department for Transport’s ‘Transforming Cities Fund’, which will allow us to deliver projects over the next three years to support a safer, greener, fairer and healthier city.
Our Green Transport Recovery Plan is a new but important chapter in this story and has the potential to boost this goal even further. This presents us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to try something different and shape our city’s future for the better. We’re consulting on all of the measures in the plan and the feedback received will inform our final decisions about whether they are removed, altered or made permanent. We want as many people as possible to get involved in this process. You can have your say on all of the changes using the following channels:
For Dale Road, Hill Lane, Portswood Road & Bitterne Road West
For The Avenue/Bassett Avenue
For general feedback