Social distancing saves lives: but it means we will need big changes if we are to keep South Yorkshire’s transport system working safely. I want to make sure those changes leave a lasting legacy of good from this awful crisis – by super-charging our efforts to get people out of their cars, on their feet and on their bikes.
As the Mayor of Sheffield City Region, I’m working to protect our public transport in this pandemic. I’ve secured more than £11m to keep our buses and trams running, but social distancing has inevitably reduced capacity on our buses, trams and trains to a fraction of what it was – and we need to keep seats free for key workers and essential journeys.
If people turn to their cars instead, the result will be gridlock. During the lockdown, we have all got used to spending more time in our immediate neighbourhood. Cars have remained on the drive as we’ve walked or cycled to the shops. If we can make this the new normal as lockdown measures are eased, it will help keep us moving – and bring many other benefits as well.
But if we are to ask people to leave the car behind, we have to make it safe and practical. That’s why my Active Travel Commissioner Dame Sarah Storey and I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask the Government to put walking and cycling at the heart of the country’s recovery plan.
I’m delighted they have announced new funding for active travel both nationally and locally. Across the UK £250m has been made available, with a further £2bn of investment planned over the coming years. In South Yorkshire, I had already secured £166m from the Transforming Cities Fund, half of which will be spent on active travel.
The benefits are enormous: for our health, for the NHS and for the planet. Incorporating exercise into our daily lives by walking to school and cycling to the shops reduces the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
During the pandemic, we’ve all worked hard to protect the NHS – by making changes we can continue this for the long-term, reducing admissions and pressure on hospitals.
The drop in the use of cars also helps the health of our planet. Pollution levels have decreased globally during this pandemic; I do not want to see them go back to the unacceptable levels we have seen before.
I’m determined South Yorkshire plays its part in making these changes.
We already enjoy a fantastic relationship with elite cycling, with thousands coming out to watch the pros race through our beautiful countryside. And while we haven’t been able to enjoy the Tour De Yorkshire this year, people across the region have been getting out on the bikes in their droves.
I have put active travel at the heart of my transport strategy for South Yorkshire, committing to improving walking and cycling infrastructure. Dame Sarah and I will soon publish an ambitious 20-year vision for enabling more people to travel on foot or by bike.
We have already been leading the way. Our 2040 network will connect our town centres and be safe and accessible for all. It is an ambitious plan to make South Yorkshire a place where people get on their bike or walk for the majority of everyday journeys.
We are taking steps to make this happen now as we emerge from lockdown. To enable more people to walk and cycling during a time of social distancing, Dame Sarah and I are working with our local authorities and communities to install temporary walking and cycling infrastructure across our region.
We have received more than 750 comments on our interactive map, which allows people to highlight areas where social distancing is not possible for those walking or cycling. Sheffield has already announced a wave of measures, including the pedestrianisation of one of the city centre’s most popular spots for independent traders.
I am pleased local authorities are making space for active travel on our region’s roads but they must act with urgency to ensure we do not return to the congested, polluted roads we had before the virus hit. To do that, we need funding and support from central government. We need the Government to follow through on their new enthusiasm if we are going to continue to protect the NHS and save lives as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
But the aim should not be to go back to the status quo, it should be to make this a moment of fundamental change for our region and our country.
Active travel should be part of an even wider strategy – a green new deal to transform our economy, create millions of new jobs, and counter the economic damage the pandemic has caused.
If we do nothing, the quiet roads, clear air and safer streets we have been experiencing will soon become a distant memory as gridlock, pollution and danger returns. That would be a colossal waste.
We’ve had a glimpse of what can be; now we need to seize the opportunity with both hands.