-By Karol Kurnicki, WIRL-COFUND Fellow, Warwick University, UK
In today’s situation, when every journey on public transport poses a risk to you and others, it seems that cars became one of the most reasonable options for travel. There are cities, like London, which suspend their restrictions on automobility, such as congestion zone and ultra-low emission zone. Or cities like Warsaw and Glasgow, where parking charges have been temporarily suspended. The reason for these measures is to help those people who really need to get somewhere quicker and easier, like “key workers” or those visiting their family members that require help. But these examples also reveal that means of mobility can be prioritised according to their social usefulness, at the same time revealing the potential for changes after we can all get back safely to our trains and buses. Cars will stay with us as in one form or another as very capable and flexible vehicles, largely irreplaceable for certain task. Now is the time, however, to realise that it is a matter of choice and planning, and to imagine making our daily trips differently.
In the area where I currently live – cradle of UK’s motorisation – car is still the king. On my way to the campus or nearest supermarket, I need to pass through two large, multi-lane roundabouts, which combined have only one safe pedestrian crossing. The area is crisscrossed by highways connecting even bigger highways, leading do sprawled suburban neighbourhoods. The suburbs we know from American movies and TV series, where teenagers spend their time after school cycling about, exploring and having exciting adventures is not the reality around here.
In recent days, as road traffic visibly decreased because of social distancing measures the bike rides that I occasionally take to go to the supermarket became much more dangerous. Fewer cars means that speeding is common. I cannot ride in the flow of traffic anymore and taking my space in the middle of the lane does not discourage those who want to overtake at high speeds. Moreover, closed campus also means fewer cyclist in the area, so drivers expect bikes on the roads even less than in usual. Result? For me, one near-miss at the roundabout and at least a few times when I was convinced that I am going to be hit by a car approaching fast from behind. This is not something I experienced commuting on the same roads in the months before.
This makes me think about how many changes have to be made in this area to overcome the domination of cars. And how easy they are actually to make, especially in those circumstances. People are told to avoid others, but also to do some daily exercise. They also have more time to get groceries and do things at a slower pace than even two weeks ago. They are often confined to the area close to their houses.
As I write these words, the UK government is introducing stricter social distancing measures – even less reasons to be on the road. Being inside a car does not automatically provide us with protection from the virus and there are not many places where you would could or need to drive anyway. Cycling is in especially good position to replace car travel and has additional advantage of being clean and cheap. But the decision has to be made to make it safe and convenient. For safety – create separate lanes on the road. Traffic is low and this will not cause much congestion or disrupt public transport. Convenient – remove obstacles and bottlenecks, provide clear signs to shops and pharmacies, install new bike parking spaces. Organising bike-through shopping also should not be that difficult for supermarkets looking for solutions in those extraordinary times.
As a healthy white male, I can make my way on my bike even against dangerous, inconsiderate, speeding drivers. But many other people need to be convinced that cycling is a viable option and can remain one even after the emergency policies. This is the time to implement changes, mainstream cycling and walking and find limits for car use.