I have revelled in some of the silver linings of this grim pandemic, walking in the area and cycling in the glorious countryside of Harrogate, to Almscliffe Crag or Lower Nidderdale, on blissfully quiet country lanes, enjoying the unusually fresh air, the birdsong, and day after day of April sunshine. I’m excited to see many parents out cycling with their children – sometimes little ones who can only recently have learned to cycle – because the roads feel safe, and it’s great when people say that as a result of the lockdown they’ve discovered the joy of walking instead of getting into their car every time they leave home. The two things that spoil our outings are the ubiquitous litter, such as coffee cups and drinks bottles undoubtedly thrown out of vehicle windows, and occasional aggressive drivers and boy racers, who know the chances of getting a ticket are virtually zero.
What will happen after the pandemic? We’ve had this brief taste of a different, calmer and environmentally far better way of living but, whether we want it or not, isn’t it inevitable that once all the factories, shops and schools are open, we will go back to ‘normal’, our roads increasingly congested and air polluted? After all, don’t people have to earn and need to be mobile?
I believe it’s not at all inevitable. We can choose how and where we live and travel, who and what policies we vote for, what kind of society we live in and leave for future generations. There is a massive amount of discussion about all of this going on right now in webinars and online meetings among people including politicians, academics, journalists and others who believe real and rapid change for a sustainable world is not just entirely possible but also essential. The dreadful coronavirus has so far killed over 20,000 in the UK and over 200,000 worldwide. Our destruction of the environment is killing millions of people every year, including from air pollution alone an estimated 64,000 in the UK, and 8.8 million worldwide (Max Planck Institute report, 2019). We’ve made enormous adjustments almost instantly to tackle the virus, we can and must make whatever changes are needed to tackle the climate crisis and pollution.
We can all make a difference by using the car only as a last resort, choosing to fly rarely or not at all, picking up litter, not creating it, considering the environmental impacts of what we buy and consume. In my view, none of this is difficult, it’s just developing a new habit which soon becomes normal.
But it’s the politicians we elect whose decisions are crucial to determine whether we return to the old ‘normal’ or whether the changes for the better caused by the pandemic – the silver linings – become permanent. Some changes will remain in any event. Many people have found they don’t need to travel to the centre of the city every day when they can do much of their work from home, potentially saving companies a fortune on office space. Video conferencing can be a cheaper, greener, more efficient alternative to hundreds or thousands of people flying in for a conference in Switzerland, possibly to discuss the climate crisis! The government says social distancing will be the new normal for a long time to come. What now the justification for spending £106 billion plus on HS2, and billions more on new roads and propping up failing airlines? All should be reassessed from the perspective of the new reality of a post-Covid world.
Across the world hundreds of towns and cities are using the lower volumes of traffic as an opportunity to experiment in reallocating road space away from cars in favour of people on foot and bicycles. Low cost measures are being put in place to create temporary cycle lanes. Rather than just leave car parking spaces empty some authorities are coning them off to increase the area available to and needed by socially distanced pedestrians and cyclists. Cars, which previously packed Brighton’s seafront road, are now banned from using it.
In North Yorkshire green transport campaigners have long argued for this redistribution, for investment in cycling and walking – for health reasons, to reduce noise, and to improve public safety and the public realm generally. The need for social distancing makes the case more unarguable than ever. North Yorkshire County Council, the highways authority, has built no significant new cycle infrastructure in our district for several years while spending hundreds of thousands trying and – thanks to huge efforts by local campaigners – failing, to make the case for a useless relief road between Harrogate and Knaresborough, tinkering with junctions, and on ineffective ‘smart’ traffic lights for example by the Conference Centre, all with aim of catering for more traffic. The Council is spending millions on much needed pothole repairs and points out that this also helps cyclists. It does, but what people want is investment in a first class Dutch standard active travel network, and where cyclists and walkers are the primary, not secondary, beneficiaries. Harrogate Council has made the prospects much worse by producing a disastrous Local Plan which gives a token nod to sustainability while virtually ensuring that residents of the huge new developments west of Harrogate will have to use their cars for almost every journey. As a result, NYCC is spending more money on assessing a new western relief road, which would again solve nothing while destroying even more of our countryside.
So what kind of society will the children live in, the environmentally destructive one we’ve all been used to, or a ‘new normal’, something more like the lockdown without the virus, which puts the emphasis on wellbeing and quality of life, and on protecting our world?