At the end of April, the retail consultant Mary Portas appeared on the BBC’s World at One programme to discuss how physical shopping could continue to function during the coronavirus crisis.
Portas has a bit of form for, shall we say, car-centric ‘solutions’ to high street problems, proposing the quack remedy of free parking as a response to town centre decline, and generally arguing for unfettered access by motor traffic to shopping streets, while simultaneously paying scant attention to benign modes of transport like walking and cycling. So it was perhaps no great surprise to hear her complaining about having to pay car parking charges in London boroughs during the coronavirus pandemic, while singing the praises of department stores that have converted themselves into drive-throughs, a kind of transformation that these hidebound councils are apparently not enlightened enough to adopt.
I was reminded of this episode by this excellent cartoon from Dave Walker, which manages to capture the Dystopian reality of the Portas worldview in the left panel.
At an individual level, travelling by private car is of course the safest way for you, personally, to travel around, with no interaction whatsoever with the outside world. And unfortunately it’s only a short mental leap from that insulated travel to insulated everything, with no need to exit the motor vehicle for any kind of human activity outside of the home – the car, combined with an entirely car-based public realm, as the ultimate form of personal protective equipment.
Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.
And this behaviour is happening already, simply an accelerated form of the car-dependent lifestyles that existed pre-coronavirus. Friends meeting up in cars, graduation ceremonies in cars, drinking coffee in cars, going clubbing in cars. And these American trends have appeared in the UK, primarily as drive-through fast-food outlets have begun to re-open.
Helpfully, our Environment Secretary has even commented that
our view is that a McDonald’s drive-through is made for the social distancing situation that we are in, in that people do not leave their car.
Meanwhile, the enlightened John Redwood thinks the answer is more car parks and free parking, a view that may unfortunately be widely shared by politicians. So it seems almost inevitable that those areas of the United Kingdom that are already highly car-dependent – places where sprawl is a feature, with large, fast roads connecting up isolated housing to out-of-town workplaces, or to retail parks with enormous car parks – will slide further into that car dependence, as former public transport users shift to car use, with little incentive to walk or cycle instead.
The truth is that while some cities and larger towns were, by and large, moving in the right direction on active travel, most of the rest of the country now has a long history of stagnation or even decline when it comes to levels of walking and cycling. Coronavirus may serve to accelerate these trends, with car-dependent places becoming even more car-dependent, and (fingers crossed) cities in particular seeing further shifts away from private car use. As I write this, some councils are doing an amazing job, rapidly developing and implementing programmes of pop-up cycle lanes on main roads and low-traffic neighbourhoods. Others are sitting on their hands, waiting for cash to be handed to them from central government before they do anything (cash they may not get), while others are showing absolutely no interest whatsoever, or even being overtly hostile to the notion of enable walking and cycling.
The reason for optimism with regard to denser urban areas is principally the volume of public transport trips that will have to be shifted onto other modes. To take the obvious example of London, over ten million daily trips were made by bus, underground and DLR last year. Many of these trips won’t come back, at least in the near future, but that still leaves several million journeys that simply have to be made by other modes.
Shifting them into private cars is not realistic. For one thing, using cars isn’t an option for people who don’t have one. Nearly a quarter of all UK households don’t have access to a car – all these people will need safe alternatives to public transport. But just as importantly, there simply isn’t the space between buildings to accommodate millions of extra car journeys in London, and in other cities. And even if we are stupid enough to try, at best we’re going to be creating millions of extremely unpleasant slow-moving car journeys, while also imposing significant costs for the people who are trying to get around by other (notably more efficient) modes of transport. We’ll also be sacrificing the enormous public health benefits of active travel. It’s an issue of economics, of fairness, and more bluntly, simple mathematics. The cars won’t fit.
We also need to think critically about how our public space is used, particularly as businesses attempt to reopen, and activity increases. Is it justifiable to continue to use the vast majority of street space to accommodate private motor vehicles (both their movement, and their and storage) at the expense of businesses like pubs, restaurants and even, say, theatres, which could spill out into the open air? Even the right-leaning Spectator magazine has recognised this conflict –
The only conceivable way for pubs and restaurants to meet social distancing rules is if local authorities allow them to put tables on the streets. But like the politicians’ exhortations for people to walk and cycle to work, that will only be possible if the authorities force cars to make way for them, and to date there is little sign the government will allow anything more than cosmetic measures. It is a sign of how powerful the hold of the car culture is on public life that the narrow streets of Soho, the centre of London’s night-time economy, are still open to traffic 24/7. If you want to save the businesses, you have to ban the cars and free the space.
Again, this is set to be a crucial tipping point, with some cities and towns allocating increasing amounts of street space to open air dining and business activity (this example in Norwich may be typical), while others dive deeper into car dependence. Whether cities like it or not, further moves away from the private car are impossible to avoid if they are to continue functioning, both in terms of avoiding crippling congestion, and allowing a variety of businesses to operate profitably. 10% of all street space in London is used for parking – that use of public space is hard to justify even in ‘normal’ times, even more so when it is urgently needed for social distancing and business activity.
The flip-side of this optimistic outlook is that the places that where public transport use is light, or negligible – places which are very car-dependent – may see that car dependence entrenched, at least in the short term. This is simply because the ‘business as usual’, driving-everywhere pattern of mobility in these locations, while harmful in many different ways, is not a pressing issue when considered strictly in terms of the spread of coronavirus.
This would be a pity. For one thing, shifting journeys away from the car in towns may be easier than in cities, principally because trips here are often shorter than their city equivalents. We should also not forget that the kinds of measures that are springing up now to deal with coronavirus – pop-up bike lanes, widening footways, creating low traffic neighbourhoods, and filtering streets – are the kinds of measures we should be taking anyway, even if there wasn’t a pandemic occurring.
There is an opportunity even in the places that are car-dependent. It’s unlikely that motor traffic levels will rise fully back to where they were pre-coronavirus – with, for instance, more home-working, and a general reluctance to travel by any mode. That means there will still be surplus road capacity that can be repurposed, even if there isn’t such an urgent need to accommodate people displacing from public transport. The package of funding recently announced by the Department for Transport – with strict conditions on how it is used, and how quickly – presents some grounds for hope, even in the most car-centric places. Space can be reallocated cheaply and quickly.
‘Portas-world’ – a vision of entirely car-based activity outside of the home – simply won’t work in dense urban areas. However, it is feasible in places that have developed around intensive car use. Whether it is inevitable or not is – as always – a matter of political will.