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Repurposing the streets for cycling

Cycling in Manchester / iStock-1097046640

Reducing the distance between people and places will enable streets to be repurposed into places for people to walk, cycle and play, says Giulio Ferrini.

How far away is your closest corner shop? Park? School? And, more importantly, how do you get there?

Transport has played a key role in shaping our cities. As cars, buses and rail increased the speed of travel, towns and cities began expanding. Residents moved into quiet residential areas further afield, offices relocated into industrial estates next to newly built motorways, and suburban shopping centres replaced high street stores.

This Corbusian separation of land uses created a vicious cycle of induced demand and increasing travel distances. Transport investment into active travel and public transport infrastructure has not kept up. Our Bike Life report, the UK’s largest assessment of urban cycling, and an independent survey of 16,923 residents shows only one per cent of households in 12 major cities and urban areas are within 125m of cycle tracks, physically separated from traffic and pedestrians.

For many, this has left the private car as the only convenient way of undertaking daily trips, meaning that most people do not drive by choice but rather out of necessity. In fact, car drivers would be the most likely to scrap their commute in favour of teleporting; the daily reality of staring at brake lights while breathing toxic exhaust fumes a stark contrast to the empty roads shown in ads.

More importantly car-centric town planning has also excluded those who cannot drive or do not own a car from travelling around the city: a child’s radius of independence has shrunk year on year, mirrored by a rise in social isolation (particularly amongst the elderly), and growing inequality.

In addition to the social implications of car-focused planning, transport currently accounts for 27 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributor to the inactivity and air quality crises.

As built environment professionals, we must do more. The UK Government’s recent announcement of bringing forward its phase-out of diesel an petrol vehicles by five years from 2040 to 2035 to reach a net zero emission economy by 2050 is a mandate to convert radical thinking into radical implementation, addressing the climate emergency.

"We can repurpose our streets to become places for people to walk, cycle, play and chat, the vaccines for our 21st century viruses"

The way we travel impacts our lives and those around us. Autonomous vehicles and Hyperloop capture the collective imagination, but risk exacerbating the crises we currently face by increasing travel distances, requiring intensive resources and severing communities.

Our focus should be at the opposite end of the spectrum: on reducing travel distances and resource consumption, and bringing people and places closer together. We advocate for a world where, through densification and mixing different land uses, most daily needs (shops, schools, parks, community centres) can be cycled and met within a 20-minute walk.

With more local trips, the streets can be repurposed to prioritise people over vehicles, with play features, green spaces and car-free zones which prevent through traffic. People will choose to walk and cycle their local journeys, knowing they will stumble across someone they know on the way, with high-quality cycling and public transport infrastructure for trips further afield.

Cities around the world are already taking action to reduce car use and design for a car-free lifestyle, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently promising a 15-minute city. Our report shows the UK public is supportive of similar plans, with 58 per cent (out of 116,923) of the people surveyed supporting additional government spending on cycling, compared to 42 per cent of those who support more investment in cars.

We must move away from car-centred, single-use development of poorly connected sites and shift our focus to mixed-use, human-scale neighbourhoods. By reducing the distance between people and places, we can repurpose our streets to become places for people to walk, cycle, play and chat, the vaccines for our 21st century viruses.

Giulio Ferrini is head of built environment at walking and cycling charity Sustrans

Read more:

Urban dwellers ‘want more investment in cycling’

Read the Bike Life 2019 report on the Sustrans website.

Image credit | iStock


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