It’s already become somewhat of a cliché to talk about not going back to the pre-COVID-19 world and to harness what positive changes we can to address the inequalities that existed in our world before. Not least to address the causes and unequal impact of the climate crisis, and of one of the biggest emitters – the way we move around our streets.
Yet councils like ours in Lambeth, dealing on the ground with the scale of challenge and re-thinking required by this crisis, cannot wait for clarity or funding for active travel initiatives from government. As local authorities, we are stepping up and delivering for our communities.
Already in this crisis, councils have picked up the slack – keeping essential services going, delivering food parcels for vulnerable people, filling the PPE gap left by government and supporting communities to get each other through these difficult times. In Lambeth, this has meant setting up and delivering by cargo bike food and care packages to over 8,000 people in weeks.
Reshaping our neighbourhoods
Once we had got the initial food and care response off the ground and our business support package up and running, the imperative switched to looking at designing our neighbourhoods so people can move around safely, reducing road danger and the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We know that without bold intervention, as restrictions ease, we will be seeing a catastrophic rush to motor vehicles as people stay away from public transport.
People in Lambeth are using their neighbourhoods differently in response to government regulations and health advice. Whilst we might have seen fewer cars on our streets, they were much more dangerous due to rampant speeding. The Met Police have published statistics showing compared with the same week last year, speeding offences are up by 300% this year.
In Lambeth, over 70% of our households live in flats and the majority do not own a car. What this means is that most of our residents have no outside space and are increasingly are trying to enjoy the public space available in their local neighbourhood on roads that are totally dominated by non-local, rat-running traffic, that is going dangerously fast. This is manifestly unfair and impacts our more deprived communities disproportionately.
Our Emergency Transport Strategy
That’s why last week we were the first council in the country to launch an emergency transport plan in response to COVID-19. It aims to tackle the crisis in stages by temporarily widening pavements to enable social distancing and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission; build safe routes for our key workers to cycle to Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital for example; make interventions in our local neighbourhoods so that we filter miles of rat-running traffic and allow local residents to use and enjoy their streets free from increased risk of danger; and construct safe routes to and from our town centres, connecting them with our residential areas so that as social distancing stays with us into the future, we are able safely to access employment and support our fantastic local businesses.
Our plan is informed by, and builds on, the ambitions we set out in our Transport Strategy last year – to create Healthy Routes (safe routes for walking and cycling) and cover Lambeth in low traffic neighbourhoods. Through the strategy, and with the projects we had been working on with TfL, such as the Brixton Liveable Neighbourhood, we are building a borough where walking and cycling becomes the mode of choice for everyone. It is rooted in what we already know and had planned to deliver in Lambeth, but we are now doing so as an emergency because we urgently need to protect people from an explosion in motor vehicle use and the multitude of negative effects that will come along with that.
But what about the finances?
It is true local authorities face massive financial challenges, following a decade of austerity where in Lambeth, for example, we have had 56% cut in our budget from central government. The government said that we must do whatever it takes to protect residents and businesses and not to put off decisions because of money. However, the government has committed to funding less than half of the tens of millions Covid-19 is costing Lambeth. And we are yet to be guaranteed funding by government to act to protect our residents on transport. We will continue to lobby to ensure they stat true to their word. Because we agree, the approach should be whatever it takes.
But we can’t wait for that conversation with central government to play out – we must take action now. The risk of doing nothing is too great. If we don’t act, we could be left with gridlocked main roads and residential streets clogged up by rat-running traffic- creating an environment where people – particularly children and older citizens – are unable to move around their local area safely, breathing in that toxic air.
Looking to the future
In Lambeth, we are working with our residents and fantastic campaign groups who are sick of their roads not being safe when walking or cycling and of pollution marring their children’s walk to school. But whilst they have shown huge support for action we have taken, they rightly want us to go much further and to create significant and long-lasting changes to our environment.
And our ambition is to meet this challenge. For us in Lambeth, we do not consider it is an option to replace one health crisis with another. The climate crisis has not gone away just because the air waves have been full of talk of the Covid-19 crisis. We pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030 and a safe and clean transport system is key to delivering that. Whilst these problems may be national and international, the solutions are indeed local.