About time: streets, traffic and change

The global pandemic created the conditions — a public health emergency — under which many cities rapidly modified streets and open spaces to enable people to walk, wheel and cycle, supporting physical activity and exercise as well as safe local travel. Paris, London, Edinburgh plus many other places did this. In the UK and its devolved nations, government funding was made available for these schemes. Local authorities bid for the money and used it to make temporary changes to streets, widening narrow pavements to help with social distancing, and installing protected cycle lanes to encourage and enable people to cycle, wheel or scoot more safely.

Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

The speed of the processes used to make these changes was a fraction of the normal time needed to make changes to our streets. In normal times, plans are drawn up and there is an extensive process of internal dialogue between different parts of a local council, engagement with stakeholders and consultation processes with the public before any physical changes are made. The legal steps required to make changes to streets in Scotland are particularly cumbersome and long-winded, involving both local and central government. One scheme in Edinburgh waited for two years for the Scottish Government to complete its part of the process — and it seems extraordinary that the council should need the Government to confirm a local scheme to create a new cycling route in one part of the city. The hold up is not just irritating, it’s financially costly — and in this Edinburgh example the additional costs caused by the delay have resulted in redesigns to bring the project back to the original budget.

Changing the fabric of our cities has always been slow. Received wisdom suggests that about 1% of the building stock is turned over each year, and today’s cities are the manifestation of decisions made over decades and centuries. Changing the physical form of a city takes a long time. However, the behaviour of citizens changes much more quickly, and — in the 21st century — that behaviour is being shaped in ways that planners, architects and urban designers have not anticipated. The pandemic aside, one of those unanticipated influences comes from satnav systems and apps, which devise routes for motorists. Using real-time data, these apps have been encouraging drivers to avoid congestion on main routes by diverting through residential streets. Of course, those short-cuts have always been there, used by knowledgeable cabbies and local residents. Now the whole world knows about those short cuts.

The rapid design and implementation of cycling and walking measures during a pandemic has demonstrated that governments can respond nimbly and quickly. Going back to the old ‘normal’, long-winded, time-consuming and legalistic ways of changing our streets seems unwieldy and wrong, particularly in the context of the climate emergency. We have ambitious carbon reduction targets to achieve in the next 10 years — can we afford to wait 3 or 4 or 5 years to design and implement each piece of active travel infrastructure? How do we get to the future we want using processes devised 30 or 40 years ago?

town planner & urban geographer interested in health, sustainability, climate change, transport, physical activity, green space & blue space. likes bikes.