Opinion: Protecting communities from road danger reduces Covid-19 risks too

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 149.

Image as described adjacent
Anna Williams

Winter during a pandemic is about balancing risk. Decisions on which places we’re willing to go to and which activities we’re comfortable doing may be influenced by evidence and government guidelines, but also by our own individual perceptions of risk.

In August, Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, sought to reassure parents that it was safe to send their children back to school. She said that no environment was risk-free and that the risk of a child being involved in a road traffic accident on the way to school was probably higher than the health risks of pupils catching Covid-19. But, hang on – is that really acceptable? Over 2,000 children are killed or seriously injured on British roads each year and every single one of those life-changing events is preventable.

Thankfully, the authorities in our region seem to agree. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Road Safety Partnership has recently been renamed the Vision Zero Partnership with a new strategy that aims to reduce deaths on local roads to zero by 2040. However, 20 years seems a long way off, considering the Partnership has been inspired by successful Vision Zero initiatives in places such as Oslo, which has already celebrated a year in which no child, pedestrian or cyclist was killed by a car. It happened in 2019, for the first time in 109 years.

Two boys cycle past temporary bollards on Storey's Way, Cambridge
Young people riding past the Storey’s Way modal filter soon after implementation.

How did Oslo do it? It transformed its streets. Car parking spaces were removed from streets in the city centre. Motor vehicles were prohibited around primary schools. Speed limits were tightened, traffic-calming measures introduced and 40 miles of protected cycle lanes were installed. Every aspect of road safety was considered, from better driver training to more funding for roads police, as the city worked towards the principle that ‘it can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system’.

Back in Cambridgeshire in 2020, the county council is progressing with a second tranche of emergency cycling and walking schemes, funded by the government as part of its Covid-19 response. What do these measures involve? The removal of car parking spaces in the centre of Cambridge (for example, on Queen’s Road and Regent Street). Improvements on routes to schools (such as along Oundle Road in Peterborough and at the A505 crossing near Duxford). Reduced speed limits in the villages of Milton, Madingley and Bassingbourn. Traffic-calming measures in Buckden and St Neots. New segregated cycle lanes on busy streets including Station Road and Newmarket Road in Cambridge and new modal filters to create more space for walking and cycling across the region.

These measures are being implemented to provide more safe space for walking and cycling during the pandemic, both to help people maintain Covid-safe distances from each other and to encourage them to choose active travel for their journeys. We also know from Vision Zero examples that, if these measures are successfully implemented, they will improve safety. Over 77% of those killed or seriously injured on the roads in Cambridge between 2014 and 2018 were cyclists and pedestrians and 25% were under the age of 25. The measures will also improve people’s perception of safety: in a recent Sustrans report, 40% of respondents thought that the safety of people walking needed to be improved and 66% thought cycling needed to be safer.

Improving both actual and perceived safety is important because it opens up new active travel journeys to the greatest range of ages and abilities. The Sustrans research revealed that safety concerns stopped 39% of people cycling or led to them cycling less often than they would like. The more streets and communities are made safe, the more people will switch from driving to active travel. This frees up space on public transport for those who need it and space on the roads for emergency vehicles, deliveries and those who can’t avoid using a car.

Protecting our communities from road danger also helps tackle Covid-19 in other ways. More people walking and cycling leads to improved health, increasing individuals’ ability to fight the virus, and less air pollution, which limits its spread. With a worrying winter ahead, the new measures can’t come soon enough.

Anna Williams is the Communications and Community Officer for Camcycle. This article was originally published on 23 October in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.