Get ready for a “golden age for cycling,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised parliament on May 6. But new data shows that British motorists are getting back in their cars, which could stymie the lockdown’s “bike boom.”
By the time the Johnson administration gets round to announcing predicted emergency funding to pay for “pop-up” cycling and walking infrastructure it could be too late, believe experts.
Analysis of hundreds of thousands of trips shows that there were 11% more cars on the road last week compared to the first week of lockdown; motorists are also now racking up 23% more daily miles.
The number-crunching has been done by the RAC. The data is from “black box” telematics units installed in cars insured through the road rescue organization.
Government statistics, recorded at 275 automated sites, show that motoring has been consistently 40% lower than usual since the start of the U.K. lockdown on March 23, but there has recently been an uptick in mileage, as demonstrated by a slide presented at the daily COVID-19 briefing on May 6. This uptick tallies with the RAC’s in-car data.
“There is now mounting evidence that people are venturing back out in their [motor] vehicles for more essential, as well as arguably non-essential journeys,” said RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes.
“Our data clearly shows a slight, but steady, rise in the number of drivers using their vehicles, and the distances they are traveling in them daily, compared with earlier in the lockdown.”
During the lockdown cycling has boomed, with bike shops running out of supplies and quiet roads buzzing with cyclists. Those new to transport cycling have likely converted from transit—motorists are notoriously resistant to mode switching, although a recent survey of nearly 20,000 AA members found that 22% of them claimed they would drive less after lockdown with 36% planning to increase their levels of self-propelled transport such as walking and cycling.
“People have got used to leaving the car at home during lockdown,” said AA president Edmund King.
The reduction in car use has seen motor traffic dropping to levels last experienced more than sixty years ago. U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News on April 17 that the “level of car use is the equivalent to 1955 and I must be the first transport secretary in history who celebrates the idea that there are fewer cars on the road.”
However, except for urging citizens to stay at home—at least for now—the government has done nothing practical to discourage motoring, and some transport academics say that the chance to reconfigure Britain’s roads for users other than motorists is slipping away.
“It is important to intervene quickly,” said Robin Lovelace of the University of Leeds’ Institute for Transport Studies.
“There is a window of opportunity now that people see the benefits of reduced traffic for air quality, road safety, and tranquility.”
Lovelace and colleagues have worked with advocacy organization Cycling UK to identify busy commuter roads where pop-up cycleways could be installed overnight using traffic cones and signs. The locations were picked using the multi-institution Propensity to Cycle Tool, an online data project funded by the Department for Transport.
“The fact that road traffic is up strengthens the argument for acting quickly,” said Lovelace, who claimed that pop-up interventions were popular with the public.
“This past six weeks, we have seen the biggest experiment in transport policy this country has ever known,” Adrian Warren of the Cycle to Work Alliance told the BBC on May 7.
“It’s clear the default option is cycling.”
The AA president does not disagree, with King saying that reallocating road space from motorists to cyclists is fine “where appropriate.”
On May 7, the Welsh government asked local authorities for plans to “introduce temporary measures to improve the safety and conditions for sustainable and active travel modes.”
Deputy Minister for Transport Lee Waters said: “For the sake of the air we breathe, the world’s climate and public health, we need to try and lock in this shift and avoid returning to pre-Covid travel patterns.”
The U.K. government has come under pressure to create a national funding package for pop-up cycleways and sidewalks similar to the one introduced by New Zealand last month and a £10 million program introduced by Scotland on April 28.
An announcement on such a funding package is expected on May 11.
Before that, Johnson will broadcast an address to the nation on Sunday evening in which he will outline the next phase of the government’s much-criticized Coronavirus response.