The Coventry Society is campaigning for a different vision for Coventry as we come out of the Covid epidemic. Part of the necessary change is the way that we move about our city. We asked Coventry’s Bicyle Mayor, Adam Tranter, to give us his thoughts on this important issue.
Just 6% of people want to go back to the way things were, cites a recent YouGov poll. It’s an incredible but believable stat given what we’ve all learned about ourselves and our communities during lock down.
During months of incredible adversity, we caught a glimpse of what a greener, friendlier and more equitable future could look like. We rediscovered our local communities, reevaluated the importance of neighbourhood and reconnected with the outdoors. While other transport modes plummeted, according to government figures, cycling saw a huge increase – as much as 200% in places. In May, according to Strava Metro data, cycling trips in Coventry had doubled versus the same time in the previous year.
Almost everybody had noticed the change. Families took their bikes out of the sheds and experienced the physical and mental benefits of riding a bike. Rather than putting bikes in the back of a car to drive to a park, people found their local communities to be pleasant, safe and welcoming enough on two wheels to make new journeys and replace previous ones, usually taken by car.
Modal share for cycling has remained at 2% for decades. Every piece of research tells the same story; more people won’t cycle unless they feel safe. While cycling is statistically safe (it’s safer than walking, per mile travelled, in the UK), in normal times, it doesn’t feel safe. Roller coasters are statistically safe too, but you wouldn’t want to go to work everyday in one.
Despite only a minority of people wanting to return to normal, that’s exactly where we’re heading. As we’re told to return to work and restart the economy, old habits are back. Car usage is nearly at pre-lockdown levels and, as a consequence, cycle trips are falling.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time to choose our future and the time for change is now.
I believe that many in Coventry want a change in direction that makes the city a welcoming place for people, not just machines. Our famed ring road, the 20th century version of a city wall, acts as a huge barrier to people looking to travel to the city centre by foot or by bike.
New research released in July 2020 shows that 6.5 people are in favour of local measures to support cycling and walking for every 1 person against. Measures to enable cycling aren’t controversial like some would think; there is a clear mandate from the public to reallocate space and change the ways our towns and cities work for people.
Change is happening and that should be applauded. There’s a new high quality segregated cycle route in Coundon and another high quality cycleway connecting the city centre with Binley Business Park and University Hospital. These measures represent a step change from the norm for cycling in Coventry, but if we’re to reach the potential for cycling in the city, we need more. And fast.
The Local Air Quality Action Plan tackles the instruction from central government to clean up Coventry’s toxic air, in the form of NO2; one of the key contributing factors to air quality is diesel vehicles, especially private vehicles which carry the fewest number of passengers. Buses, while contributing to poor air quality, do not make a dent on the impact made in Coventry by the use of private vehicles, many for short trips. In the West Midlands, 41% of car journeys are under 2 miles; a distance easily cycled or walked for many.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that governments were encouraging us to buy diesel vehicles; the same vehicles that now need to go in the name of public health.
For a city steeped in manufacturing and motor history, we need to be careful that we don’t sleepwalk into an electrified version of the status quo. Now, the government is rushing towards adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), despite them not solving many of the issues that combustion engined vehicles bring.
Electric vehicles still cause congestion and share many of the same negative impacts on wider society as their combustion engined cousins. What’s more, they still produce pollution through tiny particular particulate matter air pollution. While the impact is not yet fully understood, early indications suggest PM2.5 can have an impact on a child’s brain development. That’s before we even talk about the fact that the entry level price of £20,000 is way out of reach of all but the most wealthy of citizens.
There is a much simpler solution frequently ignored in favour of high-tech solutions. Instead of driverless cars, we need more car-less drivers.
We need to use the right tool for the job and, for many urban trips, cycling or walking are great options for many people. Across the country, 68% of all journeys are under 5 miles. Nearby in Birmingham, they have around 300,000 daily journeys by car under one mile. These journeys are having a considerable impact on our communities and the health of our neighbours.
Before the car in Coventry, the city was the world’s heart of bicycle manufacturing with the city’s pioneers producing some of the designs still in use today. John Kemp Starley’s modern safety bicycle design is the most prevalent type of bicycle in use in the Netherlands (adopted as the “omafiets”), where in some cities, over 50% of trips are taken by bikes. Over 140 years later, a human traveling on a bicycle at 10–15 mph, using only the power required to walk, is still the most energy-efficient means of human transport available.
I don’t have a crystal ball but I do believe there’s a strong chance that it won’t be long before we’re told to ditch electric vehicles, just as we have been with diesel. Other cities around the world are discovering that cities have to be for people and – in times of retail uncertainty – city centres need to be destinations and experiences. A city dominated by motor vehicles and the associated infrastructure required for them, namely car parks, rarely provides this.
There are lots of exciting developments in the city but, as The Coventry Society is already doing, we need to have a close eye on whether these opportunities are fit to take us into the future. I read with interest the society’s alternative plans for City Centre South; through speaking with the developers, it looks unlikely that any of the areas within the complex will be permitted for cycling.
This, along with other residential developments in the city, is locking in car dependency. Coventry City Centre is, in places, great for pedestrians; we’re rumoured to have Europe’s first pedestrianised shopping centre (Upper Precinct). But currently we’re heavily reliant on motor vehicle trips to get into the city centre, especially at a time where public transport is at just 30% of capacity. We should remember that 33% of people don’t have access to a car in Coventry.
We need to be bold. Doing so will not only help clean up our toxic air but bring together a more equitable city, helping narrow some of the health and social inequalities that we face. I and many others believe that bicycles will have a significant positive impact for its residents and the city’s development.
The time for change is now!