Envisioning a post-Covid-19 transport landscape: surface travel

Prof John Whitelegg, Liverpool John Moores University, looks at how the UK can transition to a sustainable transport system by building on some of the changes pursued during the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’. In the first of two blogs, he focuses on surface travel.

Responsible Science blog (4th in the Covid-19 series), 12 June 2020

We have known for many years that there is a very severe flaw at the heart of UK transport policy at all levels of government. Setting priorities and budgets is never based on joined up thinking about improving public health, improving air quality, reducing damaging greenhouse gases, and making sure that all income groups and localities get a fair share of that spending.

The past has never been a smart basis for planning the future and the reluctance of UK politicians and transport consultants to engage with smarter ways of thinking, e.g. backcasting, makes transport a text book example of very expensive, poor value for money, non-sustainable, carbon generating, flawed thinking.

Backcasting [1] requires us to specify the kind of future we would like to see in place, followed by the deployment of an evidence-based methodology for taking us from ‘now’ to that desirable future.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed some of the elements of a possible future that is desirable, healthy, socially just, carbon reducing, affordable and attractive. This is not to diminish the appalling nature of the huge death toll, disruption to ordinary life, and the damage to local economies, but it does trigger the thought that a different future might be possible. We can have our cake and eat it. We can have a successful, vibrant urban economy like Oslo based on its car-free city policy. We can have one of the most successful city regional economies in Europe if we follow the example of Freiburg-im-Breisgau in southern Germany and achieve reductions in car traffic and increases in cycling that until now we have only dreamed about in the UK. 

The challenge for all of us now, but especially for politicians still embedded in a 1960s world of big infrastructure (more roads, HS2, more airport capacity), is to transform mindsets and thinking so that we can capture the quieter roads and improved air quality we have seen in recent weeks and link this to the Freiburg approach to creating a vibrant local economy and a zero carbon future. Why would we not want to do that?

A 2006 project examined the Swedish road safety policy known as ‘Vision Zero’ and showed that it is possible to have zero deaths and zero serious injuries in the road traffic environment. [2]  A key part of the backcasting work that went into this report was to show the importance of reducing traffic levels and reducing speeds if we want to eliminate the multiple tragedies of death and injuries caused by road crashes. Covid-19 has drastically reduced traffic levels and is reported as increasing cycling so we now have practical experience of what life could be like if we adopted the proven interventions that combine Swedish Vision Zero with Freiburg’s highly attractive integrated public transport and Oslo’s car-free city plan. We can begin to visualise the possibility that Manchester’s 2% of trips every day by bike could be increased to 15% (Berlin) or 28% (Freiburg-im-Breisgau) and deliver a strong economic performance at the same time.

The UK is still dominated by a road building fetish and this is fed by the government’s £27 billion spending commitment on projects that are not evidence-based. They do not generate local economic gains and do not reduce congestion. The Covid-19 experience has taken us all into the reality and practicality of substitution of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for physical travel and we now know that it is possible to function at much reduced levels of physical movement and much higher levels of teleconferencing. We have known for some time that spending £107 billion on HS2 is a huge failure of public policy because it has never been subjected to a robust test of option building and testing. We need to grasp the experience of virtual meetings and switch the whole HS2 spending into world best broadband, internet connectivity and linking every urban and rural location to high speed reliable internet connectivity.

Indeed, the £107 billion would provide ample head room not just for much improved internet access, but also the kind of electrified railway that serves urban and rural areas in Switzerland so well and the transformation of rural bus services as recommended in a recent Foundation for Integrated Transport report. [3]

Recent examples of cancelled or stalled road building projects, e.g. the Hereford bypass and the M4 relief road in South Wales, have shown pre-Covid-19 glimmers of new ways of thinking about transport and mobility, so it is clear we can change the way we think. In Hereford, a new batch of politicians heavily supported by a spirited and intelligent campaign by Herefordshire Campaign for the Protection of Rural England has triggered a formal process of designing alternatives to the bypass that will be far more successful than a new road in delivering carbon neutrality and reducing congestion. A similar process is under way in Wales as a result of the cancellation of the M4 relief road by the Welsh Government.

The Covid-19 experience has obviously had a huge impact on society and cannot in itself justify a new direction in thinking and spending in transport and mobility. Equally it is not smart to ignore some of the things we have seen in recent weeks and ask “could we hang on to these?” The reduction in air pollution is well documented and is of great benefit to the many hundreds of thousands who suffer from respiratory problems and the likelihood of severe asthma attacks requiring hospitalisation. At a time of great distress about fatalities as a result of Covid-19, it is appropriate to reflect on the 40,000 deaths caused annually by outdoor air pollution in Britain. [4]  Why are 40,000 deaths every year not a crisis?

It is also appropriate to reflect on the public health advantages of more cycling and the evidence that increased levels physical activity reduces obesity, cardio-vascular disease and diabetes. [5]  Cardio-vascular disease kills nearly 170,000 people in Britain every year. [6]  500 people with diabetes die every week. [7]  Any of these three health problems are emergencies that trigger no emergency response.

Quiet streets with less traffic and lower speeds increase walking and cycling. These increases in physical activity, together with improved air quality, will lead to reductions in non-communicable diseases, which will reduce the 40,000 number.

The Covid-19 crisis has provided the experience of quieter streets, cleaner air and child-friendly cycling conditions – but these benefits are receding as lockdown is relaxed. We can make sure we do not lose them by putting in place now policies and interventions to preserve them including:

  • World best walking and cycling opportunities in car-free cities (Oslo)
  • Zero deaths and injuries in road traffic modelled on Vision Zero in Sweden and in line with the World Health Organisation recommendation that 30mph limits become 20mph where cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles mix, because this encourages more walking and cycling and produces quieter roads and child-friendly environments [8]
  • A huge increase in the quantity and quality of bus services [9] so that our streets are less congested and much quieter as car trips switch to bus
  • Buses that never get stuck in congested traffic and provide zero tail-pipe-emission transport (as they will be 100% electric) for all social groups
  • Highly integrated and reliable public transport (Switzerland) where buses meet trains and vice versa and villages of a few hundred people have an hourly bus service
  • A huge increase in high quality, electrified, rail services to connect rural areas with the destinations they need to reach

Finally and unusually, there is no funding problem at all with delivering all the above and that is before we take into account the huge additional gains (costs avoided) in public health and reductions in the huge costs of NHS treatment, congestion and carbon emissions. We have £107 billion plus £27 billion in the mobility transformation fund.

John Whitelegg is visiting professor of sustainable transport at Liverpool John Moores University.

This article was originally commissioned by Lillian Burns, North West Transport Roundtable as a contribution to the Department for Transport’s call for a debate about reaching a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050. John Whitelegg is grateful for the permission to re-publish it here with minor edits.



1. European Commission (2008), Backcasting approach for sustainable mobility. https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC45824/backcasting%20final%20report.pdf

2. Stockholm Environment Institute (2006). Vision Zero: Adopting a Target of Zero for Road Traffic Fatalities and Serious Injuries. https://mediamanager.sei.org/documents/Publications/Future/vision_zero_FinalReportMarch06.pdf

3. Foundation for Integrated Transport (2019). Shropshire Rural Buses. http://integratedtransport.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/FIT-Shropshire-Buses-Report-web.pdf

4. Royal College of Physicians (2016). Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution

5. World Health Organisation (2018). Global Action Plan on Physical Activity, 2018-2030. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/272722/9789241514187-eng.pdf

6. British Heart Foundation (2020). UK Factsheet. https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/our-research/heart-statistics

7. Diabetes UK (2018). 500 people with diabetes die prematurely every week. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/about_us/news/premature-deaths-diabetes

8. World Health Organisation (2020). Global gathering of ministers determines road safety agenda to 2030. https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_traffic/ministerial-conference-2020/en/

9. As note 3.


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