How can local authorities use the COVID-19 disruption to accelerate Healthy Streets?
In the UK, the lockdown has prevented people from leaving their homes other than to shop for essentials, exercise, or travel to work if unable to work from home. As a result, public transport usage and private vehicular travel has plummeted, with road travel down by as much as 73%.
Despite the profound health and socio-economic impacts, the lockdown has led to several notable sustainability benefits that have a positive knock on effect on people’s health and wellbeing in the longer term. Cities across the UK saw a 60% decline in air pollution following the first two weeks of lockdown. The frequency of public transport across our cities has been decreased during the lockdown, while active travel (cycling and walking) have gained in popularity among urban residents.
We have examined the main links between environmental conditions, particularly in urban areas, and people’s health and wellbeing. We also explore how these have been positively affected by the current lockdown, as well as the dangers of a widespread return to the private car.
Temple has reviewed measures already implemented by Local Authorities to not only ‘lock in’ current health benefits from increased active travel, but also ‘lock out’ car use beyond the lockdown. We make the case to use the transformative potential of the crisis for Local Authorities, communities and other organisations to work together and implement bold action to achieve significant social value through healthier and more resilient environments.
Environmental ‘Determinants of Health’ in Urban Areas Before, During and After the Lockdown
Until recently, most of the UK’s cities recorded levels of air pollution regularly exceeded WHO guidelines, putting urban residents at increased risk of health effects including cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory diseases. At the same time, adult obesity levels have risen from 15% to 29% over the last 25 years and one in five children is obese by age 11. Obesity increases the risk of other health conditions such as joint problems, hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke and can be connected to a lack of exercise. The use of private vehicles has a strong relationship to both issues.
The first few weeks of the lockdown city centres were near empty of traffic. The air was notably cleaner, it was quieter and generally more pleasant to be outdoors. This led to an increased perception of nature and appreciation of open space, which is likely to have had positive effects on mental health. However, several weeks into lockdown, the number of private cars on the road is noticeably increasing. It is understandable that people may be reluctant to return to rush hour public transport, this trend puts the gains made towards the achievement of healthier streets and urban environments in jeopardy, including improvements to air quality and noise and health benefits of active travel.
Once people are allowed to return to their places of work post-lockdown, it is not hard to see a return to the congested and polluted streets of past decades. As this tends to affect more deprived areas it exacerbates health inequalities, made all the more concerning when considering the likely links between air quality and COVID-19.
Since the Health and Social Care Act in 2012 required authorities to “take such steps as it considers appropriate for improving the health of the people in its area”, the connection between health and spatial planning, policy and development management has got much stronger. One way is to implement a Healthy Streets approach, such as that set out in the London Environment Strategy (LES) (2018). This approach promotes measures that enable people to take up healthier lifestyles, and seeks to promote a modal shift towards walking, cycling and public transport.
Regular physical activity is beneficial to people’s physical and mental health, reducing the risk of obesity, depression and anxiety. The following section explores some Local Authority measures in parts of the UK that seeks to make their streets more attractive for active travel.
Locking in Active Travel Benefits at the Street Level: Local Authorities’ Responses
Manchester City Council announced that areas of the city will be pedestrianised in a response to helping the city tackle the long-term impacts of COVID-19. It is thought that pedestrianising areas close to shops will allow people to safely visit shops once the lockdown is lifted whilst continuing to adhere to social distancing measures. As well as, enabling shops to open quicker, this will contribute to reducing congestion on the roads and improving both air and noise pollution. It is expected that this initiative will accelerate Manchester’s efforts to become a zero-carbon city by 2038 and stimulate local business growth by providing large open areas suitable for market stalls.
In response to COVID-19, Lambeth Borough Council have set out a new transport plan. Starting with temporary barriers to create additional space for pedestrians at key locations during lockdown, further footway widening, in addition, parking suspensions in areas with high footfall will be implemented when lockdown measures are eased and lifted. These measures are intended to lead to the permanent re-allocation of road space to pedestrians.
Cycle lane creations and improvements
On 6 May, the Mayor of London has announced a transformative plan for London’s streetspace. Working with London boroughs to avoid a return to pre-existing motor traffic levels and sustain a shift towards active modes of travel mindful of social distancing requirements, the plan sets out measures to rapidly repurpose the capital’s streets for walking and cycling. This includes the construction of a strategic cycling network, alongside reductions of traffic speed and volumes and the widening of pavements in town centres and on residential streets. The proposed measures have the potential to “accommodate a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking when lockdown measures are eased”.
With the uptake of outdoor exercise increasing, a number of local authorities including Brighton & Hove City Council and Hackney Borough Council have introduced modal filters to limit the vehicle types that can access specific roads. Councils have used these filters to close off residential roads to traffic opening them up as spaces for children and adults to play and exercise.
Reducing speed limits
Reducing speed limits makes roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but also decreases the amount of air and noise pollution associated with braking and accelerating. One example, Bradford Council is planning to reduce speed limits in Shipley town centre and on roads near schools to 20 mph, starting in June, to create safer environments for pedestrians, including children walking to school.
Croydon Council has temporarily introduced new ‘Exercise Streets’ to “help residents keep fit and healthy during lockdown”. Residential streets have been temporarily closed for motor traffic to encourage walking and cycling by making it safer. Additionally, residents will be able to apply for a section of their road to be closed for one or two hours per day, creating a safe space for outdoor exercise. Those schemes that prove particularly successful may be considered for permanent implementation once lockdown measures are lifted.
Improvements to pedestrian crossings
Transport for Greater Manchester have reduced timings at the majority of pedestrian crossings in Greater Manchester by 19 seconds (18% of the usual wait time), in order to avoid people crowding together. In Princes Way and Bridge Street, Bradford, pedestrian crossings have been modified to automatically provide a ‘green man’ crossing signal without the need for people to push the call button.
Using the ‘Healthy Streets Approach’ to drive social value and sustainability
Some planning authorities are taking bold and practical steps to embed active travel principles into their COVID-19 response and their recovery planning. What is not so clear are the benefits of making a ‘healthy streets approach’ central to these plans.
Interventions outlined above as purely transport measures, recognise only some of the good things, encouraging people to lead more active lifestyles and improvements to safety, air quality and noise.
Bolstered by increased demand for healthy streetscapes and active travel infrastructure, and a recently announced national budget to fund these, local authorities are presented with the unique chance to take action and achieve cities that will be both healthier and more sustainable – both during and beyond the lockdown.
However, healthy streets can do so much more than just be a means to encourage walking and cycling. Complementary strategies can include:
- Providing green infrastructures such as more trees, hedges, green walls and sustainable drainage systems. This further improves air quality, biodiversity, flood and climate change resilience;
- Supporting community groups, gardening and nature clubs and converting empty road space into areas where all members of a neighbourhood can gather and socialise;
- Bicycle and electric vehicle freight and cargo deliveries, to further reduce congestion, noise and air quality;
- Public transport enhancements and fare subsidies, to assure the public that they are still safe to use, upgrade fleets with lower emissions vehicles and ensure they are a much cheaper proposition than private car use;
- Congestion and clean air charging, to discourage more polluting vehicles and individual vehicles and to raise funding to drive further complimentary measures;
- Better communication of walking and cycling routes through signage and apps, and use technology to link to real time congestion and air quality data to facilitate faster and safer journeys.
Local Authorities have a clear opportunity to systematically put in place initiatives such as these, which will not only help allow social distancing in the short term but drive the green economy and jobs, combat climate change and enhance social value. Otherwise, what would be the human and economic cost of not doing so?
How can Temple help?
Temple is one of the UK’s leading independent environmental, planning and sustainability consultancies. We would be delighted to support Local Authorities to develop holistic, evidenced, economic and sustainable interventions to embed the healthy streets approach into short and long term planning and decision making. This includes specialisms in:
- Health Impact Assessment
- Green Infrastructure Design
- Air Quality and Noise Assessment
- Community and Stakeholder Engagement
- Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Assessment
- Construction Environment Management
- Town Planning
- Social Value and Social Return on Investment