Leading the Way
2020-05-14

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Could Coronavirus give rise to a new way of mobility planning

The scourge of COVID-19 has been wide reaching and has had an enormous impact in all areas of society, with the daily death toll a grim reminder of the ongoing struggle against the pandemic. The effects are certain to continue having a profound impact on the way we live our lives for some time yet, but the transport and planning sectors have a unique opportunity to draw some positives from the dire situation, and ensure these translate positively into the future to create more sustainable and healthy communities.

To understand the impact of the virus on future mobility, we have been analysing our research, emerging trends and project work to make informed predictions. You can read the full traffic and transport report here, but in short, we believe that the virus has the potential to lead to a more forward-looking planning approach, one that has already gained momentum but which could, if embraced fully, make a significant and positive difference to society and community. Fundamentally, it’s about looking to the future, not the past.

Traditionally, modelling transport has been based upon the ‘Predict and Provide’ (P&P) paradigm where a forecast would be made for the demand for a road junction or network, and ideally show that it could be accommodated. In practice, this proved to be too hit and miss. What emerged instead was a new paradigm to accelerate sustainable mobility - ‘Vision and Validate’ (V&V). This has taken root in the 2019 EU guidance on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP) and branches out further through the CREATE Project Guidelines - led by Vectos - which analysed how five EU capitals have successfully achieved modal shift by first setting the vision of a liveable city, then implementing the required policies to make it a reality.

The speed and scale at which COVID-19 has spread across the world has driven and energised the V&V theory. Instead of predicting a demand and trying to make it fit, the theory instead starts with the vision and defines what it will allow. In this context, traffic is a function of roadspace and the demand is driven by the roadspace itself.

With COVID-19 having already catalysed the notion of V&V we have seen it enter the discourse of day-to-day traffic modelling in the UK. Last year, in an encouraging move, strategic body Transport for the North (TfN) set out its plan to move towards a V&V model. Referring to its transport investment strategy, TfN asserted that V&V would help overcome the limitations of the traditional P&P approach, arguing that they had struggled to plan growth schemes without levels of growth being recorded. Now we need to embed this approach permanently.

Across the world, we have been seeing tactical urbanism measures being installed and a strong emphasis on avoiding a return to ‘business as usual.’ What used to be acceptable no longer applies. It’s time to repurpose and reimagine our built environment.

The UK Government’s £2 billion announcement this weekend has been a fantastic start – the largest funding boost in history for walking and cycling. Through the pandemic, the UK has seen unprecedented levels of walking and cycling, and this is predicted to surge as restrictions ease. Many authorities have plans to utilise the funding, including Greater Manchester, which wants to create 150 miles of protected cycle track, and Transport for London, which plans a “bike Tube” network above Underground lines.

These measures are necessary short-term health and economic recovery solutions to deal with the pandemic while also promoting sustainable modal shift, social inclusion and air quality – but we need to look further ahead and create a vision. We hope that the imminent revision of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy will issue a clear long-term plan to prioritise, develop and deliver similar measures as permanent solutions.

Aside from the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on mobility we are also seeing a wider political move towards more sustainable travel. In the London Borough of Islington we’ve seen the popular concept of ‘play streets’ where roads are temporarily shut off and pedestrians given priority. In the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Haringey there has also been a shift towards promoting transport schemes which prioritise pedestrians and more sustainable modes of transport.

On a city-wide scale the annual London Car Free Day in 2019 saw 18 Boroughs closing over 200 streets, totalling over 20 km of road closures in central London. Following the event Air Quality News reported that 65% of residents who were surveyed said the day had inspired them to use their cars less.

Responses to COVID-19 are demonstrating how quickly things can be implemented and how we can push the limit of what was previously deemed to be unachievable or too radical. To prevent car usage resuming, we need to enact changes which will see modal shift on a scale not seen since the advent of the motor car. We must start to envision how future mobility should look and make adjustments in our process and planning system to help make it happen. COVID-19 might well be the catalyst that makes this happen.