But campaigners say the DfT must go further to actively promote the prioritisation of space for pedestrians and cyclists.
The government has temporarily relaxed laws around establishing car-free streets in England, in a move that should free up space for social distancing and allow essential workers to walk and cycle to work more safely while further improving air quality.
Typically, any change of use for roads must be carefully publicised by local councils through local news outlets, letter drops, and on-site notices in order to give residents time to prepare for the changes and lodge any objections.
But the new rule change gives councils the power to largely bypass these measures and make roads car-free more quickly. In a letter to councils last week, the Department for Transport emphasized the guidance is temporary and "will be withdrawn once conditions allow".
Brighton & Hove council immediately seized the opportunity providing, announcing on Friday its intention to close Madeira Drive, a long, wide seafront road with views of Brighton Pier, with immediate effect from this week.
A coalition of campaigners are now pressing the government to go further, and actively encourage local highway authorities to implement measures that free up road space for pedestrians and cyclists. In a letter to the minister of state responsible for cycling and walking, a group fronted by fold-up bicycle firm Brompton Bicycles argued that a "clear ministerial statement" could give local authorities the "confidence they need to quickly implement measures".
"With the large increase in people, including children, cycling and walking, it's clear that many street layouts across the UK are not currently fit for purpose during the pandemic," wrote the group, which also includes NHS Barts Trust, Cycling UK, The Ramblers, Sustrans and British Cycling.
They argued: "We have vast amounts of currently underused road space which can be temporarily reallocated at low cost. This is becoming increasingly essential as key workers choose cycling or walking to get to work, avoiding potential transmission via public transport. You will have also noticed a surge in people cycling and walking for exercise in line with the government's public health recommendations; such measures improve conditions for these groups too."
The group suggested that any pro-cycling and pedestrian measures could remain in place after lockdown restrictions lift, as a method to help guard against a second wave of infections by reducing the numbers of people on public transport.
The government decision to relax traffic rules last week follows successful initiatives in cities like Berlin, which has redrawn road markings to dedicate more space to cyclists and Philadelphia, which has closed a 4.4-mile road segment to motor vehicles. In Bogota, Colombia, the city government is coordinating an initiative providing medical workers access to electric bicycles, and New York City has committed to adding one mile of temporary protected bike lanes.
In a report last week, research non-profit World Resources Institute argued that cycling should be embraced as a response to the coronavirus crisis and crises in general, given its positive impact on public health, local economies and the planet, as well as its resilience to constrained economic and transportation disruptions and power shortages.
The surge of interest in biking prompted by the pandemic, it said, provides "a unique opportunity to embrace cycling as an integral part of urban transport systems - not just as an accessory. Cities need more resilient, more equitable mobility - not only to weather the current storm, but to prepare for future crises".
The move also comes amidst growing evidence that poor air quality may be exacerbating the coronavirus crisis in some regions. The Guardian reported yesterday on a new study of coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany, which found 78 per cent of deaths clustered in just five regions, and these were also the most polluted regions.
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