Most of us are suffering economically as a result of Coronavirus. Many people have been ill, will get ill, and sadly many will die. There is no denying the fact that this is a disaster for public health and welfare. However, those that manage to stay well are benefitting from cleaner air and safer roads and streets due to the reduction in traffic. So many people have been able to appreciate the beautiful buildings and spaces in towns and cities that are normally hidden from view by dense traffic and a haze of pollution. With more time on their hands and fewer legitimate reasons to travel, many people have turned to walking, cycling or running for their daily exercise. Others have started to use these modes to commute because of cuts in public transport services or for fear of contact with the virus.
The shortcomings of our pedestrian and cycle infrastructure have become apparent – how can you realistically socially distance from others when the cycle track or footway is often less than 2.0m wide?
Mark Strong of Transport Initiatives has produced an excellent ‘Mini Guide’ to some of the options available to local authorities that wish to provide protected space for walking and cycling during the Coronavirus pandemic. This is available on the CIHT website at: https://www.ciht.org.uk/blogs/local-active-transport-helping-address-impact-of-coronavirus
The main options available for local authorities to alter infrastructure are suggested in the article as:
“•Create temporary walking space on roads–it may be possible to achieve this on multi-lane roads without a TRO by coning off all (or part of) the inside lane, or on single lane roads by narrowing the carriageway. However, this will still need sign-off by a senior councillor or officer. The reduced level of traffic means that this will have little or no impact on those people making essential trips by car, including emergency services.
•Create temporary cycling space on roads–mandatory cycle lanes can be installed without a TRO and it is also possible to use ‘light segregation’ to reinforce these (wands, ‘armadillos’ or even cones). However, this will still need sign-off by a senior councillor or officer.
•Removing all lanes for motor traffic in one or both directions will need an Experimental TRO and changes may be required at junctions. The reduction of lanes will have an impact on higher speeds hence reducing the risk of casualties. There is a minimum period of 7 days between making an Order and being able to implement measures.
•Create waiting areas on shopping streets–footways could be temporarily extended outside shops using existing legislation9allowing people walking to pass to keep 2m from those queueing to enter. This could be done by traders using movable equipment (e.g. cones) to close off parking places. This could be removed when shops areclosed. Permission will be needed from the local authority to suspend parking.
•Remove through motor traffic from residential streets (and other roads where possible) –this would allow people to walk in the street with greater safety. Cycling would also be safer, especially for children. This is also likely to need an Experimental TRO but is easier to achieve than temporary lanes, using simple barriers or planters. Particular attention could be focused on areas outside hospitals and other areas where there is a higher level of front-line work so that these people are less at risk from traffic.
•Suspend pedestrian and cyclist push-buttons at signalled crossings–this would remove the need to touch a surface and hence reduce the risk of infection. It would also be of general benefit to people walking and cycling. Timings would be automatic. This would require a risk assessment of the crossing and sign-off by a senior officer.”
One of the main ‘tools’ for managing the operation of the highway and defining who can and can’t use a road, introducing parking restrictions and speed limits is the Traffic Regulation Order. The Department for Transport published some interim guidance on Temporary Traffic Orders during the Covid 19 pandemic last week (https://www.transportxtra.com/publications/local-transport-today/news/65173/tro-process-simplified-during-pandemic/). Although this was widely reported as a ‘change in the law to make it easier’ it does not really alter any legislation, it merely suggests that local highway authorities will need to change the way they advertise and consult on TRO’s during lockdown. It also reminds local authorities that the TRO process is entirely within their powers and doesn’t need any central approval from DfT. Interestingly, the DfT revision does not refer to Experimental TROs, only to temporary and permanent ones.
It is a bit of a red herring because while local authorities are legally obliged to advertise in the printed press and on street, and to make plans available for inspection, the vast majority of this already happens via their websites and using sophisticated tools such as Commonplace to capture public opinion, as with this example from Lewisham (https://lewishamcovidtransport.commonplace.is/) .
As ever with Coronavirus, things are moving quickly and Transport for Greater Manchester announced today (23rd April) that they are altering the signal timing at pedestrian crossings so that pedestrians won’t have to wait so long and can therefore avoid crowding together. Last week Brighton and Hove Council closed the seafront Madeira Drive to motor traffic so that there is more space for walking and cycling. In other places residents and shopkeepers are making their own informal arrangements to provide safe space and maintain social distancing within the highway.
It seems increasingly likely that at least some cities and towns will start to follow the lead of Berlin, New York and Paris and introduce some temporary cycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It also seems likely that a lot of people, having experienced more pleasant roads and streets, will not be keen to rush back into pre-Covid traffic conditions. There is therefore an excellent opportunity to make a land-grab for safe space within the highway. While it will be pleasant for six months, we really should have the ambition to make this permanent. But how?
Temporary TROs (TTROs) are commonly used for events such as cycle races and marathon runs where the streets are closed to traffic for a fixed period of time, and during construction or maintenance works on or next to the highway or other public rights of way. They are administered by the local highway authority. The TTRO will typically take 12 weeks to process and can last up to 18 months (6 months on public rights of way). The recent DfT guidance specifically deals with the advertising and consultation requirements for TTROs, in recognition of the fact that the statutory requirement for a printed advert in a local newspaper may be difficult at the moment as many have closed down, and that displaying a hard copy in the Council Office for people to inspect will also be impossible. The amended guidance suggests other ways for the local authority to demonstrate adherence to the consultation requirements. With a TTRO, temporary features such as traffic cones, crowd barriers, removable planters etc can be used to demarcate the space. Dublin has already taken this kind of approach.
An Urgent Temporary Traffic Regulation Notice may be issued more quickly e.g. for a gas leak or burst water main, and lasts up to 21 days. Does Coronavirus count as an emergency?!
The process for introducing a Permanent TRO is almost identical to the TTRO. So any authority that goes to the lengths required for the temporary TRO will have done 90% of the administrative effort required. It would be a relatively simple exercise to perhaps introduce a mandatory cycle lane with light segregation (physical separators) along links. The signs and markings on the road (cycle lanes, mandatory cycle lane signs, double yellow lines etc) are what enables the TRO to be enforced by the Police, and so the physical works would need to be completed for a permanent TRO to take effect.
Local authorities may also consider using an Experimental Traffic Order (ETO). These orders are usually applied when an authority is considering something (like pedestrianizing a street) and wants to test the impact and public reaction prior to constructing a permanent scheme. The big advantage of an ETO is that it can be introduced without consultation (because essentially it IS the consultation). But, that does mean (in spirit at least) that it should normally be a pre-cursor to a permanent scheme and there should therefore be a formal process for the public and other stakeholders to feedback their reactions to the council. However, the legal requirement is only for a 6 month experimental period in which objections may be received and considered. Like TTRO, the ETO uses only temporary and removeable physical measures in the highway, so can be introduced very quickly. If the ETO results in a permanent change, this must be constructed within 18 months.
You can read more detail on the legal basis and intricacies of various TROs in the blog of The Ranty Highwayman (https://therantyhighwayman.blogspot.com).
Creating more cycle lanes, wider footways and cycle tracks may be relatively straightforward if the road is wide enough (and they often are). The arrangements at signalised junctions are more difficult. Creating the physical space for cycling, and giving cyclists their own time separate from motor traffic is complex and usually needs additional traffic signals and updates to older equipment. In most larger urban areas the signals are also linked into a wider control system that manages the flow of traffic. However, there may be some things such as advanced stop lines, alterations to signal timings etc that can be introduced relatively quickly on a temporary basis, especially while the usual concerns about the impact on traffic capacity do not apply.
There are of course many other considerations besides the legal process. Most local authorities are operating with reduced staff and are managing emergency protocols to deal with the epidemic and ensure that the most vulnerable people are safe, so transport isn’t necessarily a priority for them at the moment. Even if they want to introduce measures, there may be practical difficulties for highways contractors being able to work safely and maintain social distancing.
However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many people will be reluctant to risk public transport in the aftermath of the pandemic, and it is unfeasible for people to switch to the private car, so there is a very strong case for safer places for walking and cycling as part of any phased return to normality.
In England and Wales most local authorities have already undertaken studies (published as Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans and Active Travel Networks respectively) which identify the priority routes where there are concentrations of short trips (under 5km) that could potentially be done by walking or cycling. So we already know where temporary measures could have the most effect in enabling permanent behaviour change. Many local authorities have also prepared a preliminary business case to illustrate the potential economic benefits of introducing their network.
Most local authorities have also been monitoring the reduction in traffic and consequent reduction in congestion, air pollution and noise pollution all of which usually have a strongly adverse effect on public health and the wider economy. It is therefore possible to put an economic value on ‘locking in’ some of the benefits of a reduction in short car trips. Finally, many local authorities with automated counters are reporting record levels of walking and cycling along routes. Around 65% of the economic benefits of active travel are due to the personal health benefits, so even though the majority of these trips will only be for daily exercise at present, they are still playing a small part in mitigating some of the many economic disbenefits of Coronavirus, and hopefully reducing the future burden on the NHS. It looks like the Covid 19 is going to be a threat for a few years, and we should do all we can to enable people to maintain these healthy lifestyles when we all get back to work so that they can more easily withstand any infection.
Of all the tools at our disposal, it seems that the ETO would be the best way to bring about the rapid introduction of temporary infrastructure and at the same time lay the groundwork for permanent changes. Not everywhere will need permanent infrastructure, although even on streets temporarily closed for ‘public exercise’ there may be a case for permanent mode filtering.
However, the ETO should not be used for expediency (to avoid public consultation) but with full monitoring of the numbers of users and any adverse impacts of traffic diverting onto alternative routes. There must also be a clear intention that the ‘temporary’ infrastructure along commuter routes is an experiment with the intention to introduce permanent safe space as and when budgets permit.
The DfT could really help local highway authorities by providing technical leadership and clarity over the use of ETOs, funding for the sort of comprehensive monitoring and public relations work that was used in the Waltham Forest Mini-Holland programme, bringing forward the planned capital programmes for Transforming Cities and other funding streams to enable temporary interim schemes to be enacted immediately, and by relaxing the 18 month implementation period to allow sufficient time for full design, consultation and procurement of contractors for permanent construction when the pandemic is over.