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London mayor Sadiq Khan
Credit: Greater London Authority


London Is Creating The World’s Largest Car-Free Zone

In the wake of the coronavirus, London plans to become the largest car-free city in the world as more people will be asked to walk or ride bicycles when they travel around the metropolitan area.

London has been actively pursuing strategies to reduce congestion and air pollution for nearly two decades by imposing fees — called a congestion charge — on vehicles coming into the downtown area and establishing ultra low emissions zones to reduce pollution from cars and trucks, particularly those powered by diesel engines. Some of those restrictions have been relaxed due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but London Mayor Sadiq Kahn and Transport for London announced on Thursday that the restrictions will be reinstated on Monday, May 18.

In fact, they will be expanded to allow Londoners more ways to get around the city on foot or by bicycle while observing social distancing requirements and avoiding the use of The Tube, which is how you say “subway” in the UK. In an online announcement, the mayor says,

“Enabling social distancing to happen on the public transport network as lockdown restrictions are eased will require a monumental effort from all Londoners. Public transport must only be used when absolutely necessary — as a last resort. Many more Londoners must now walk or cycle. Everyone who can work from home must continue doing so for the foreseeable future. We must all spend more of our leisure time in our local areas to avoid unnecessary journeys. Londoners who can only get to work on rail must now walk or cycle from rail stations rather than using the tube or bus.”

In other words, you can go outside but don’t plan on going very far if you do and stay as far away from others as possible. The congestion charge may increase to £15 a month and some streets will be blocked off to vehicular traffic to put more space between cars and people. Zero and low emission vehicles such as electric taxis will be allowed access to areas otherwise restricted.

Cities Will Change As The Result of COVID-19

In a statement, Mayor Khan said,

“Covid-19 poses the biggest challenge to London’s public transport network in TfL’s history. It will take a monumental effort from all Londoners to maintain safe social distancing on public transport as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased. That means we have to keep the number of people using public transport as low as possible. And we can’t see journeys formerly taken on public transport replaced with car usage because our roads would immediately become unusably blocked and toxic air pollution would soar.

“We will need many more Londoners to walk and cycle to make this work. That’s why these plans will transform parts of central London to create one of the largest car-free areas in any capital city in the world. If we want to make transport in London safe, and keep London globally competitive, then we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people. By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another. I urge all boroughs to work with us to make this possible.”

London’s actions are remarkably similar to those taken by other cities. In Seattle, some public roads will be closed permanently to provide more opportunities for walking and biking. Clearly the old paradigm of driving a private car into the city to get to work is about to be altered, perhaps forever. If nothing else, the policies could see an increase in umbrella sales, which could be an investment opportunity for those who missed out on the Tesla stock boom.

Research at the University of Washington finds that the existence of bike sharing programs can increase the number of people who bike to work by about 20%. In an article published May 11 in the journal Transportation and Environment, Dafeng Xu, an assistant professor at the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance writes, “This study shows that bike share systems can drive a population to commute by bike. In general, biking is good and healthy, and it means less pollution and traffic, but it can be expensive, and people worry about their bikes being stolen, things like that. Bike share solves some of these problems, because people don’t need to worry about the cost and theft.”

Xu says the size of the bike share fleet available is a key metric for success. Some cities with too few bikes in circulation or too short a rental period — typically 30 minutes — have gone out of  business while other bike sharing programs have thrived. He says having a well-run bike sharing program can boost the percentage of people who ride to work. The numbers are small, however. In the US, about 2% of commuters bike to work if there is a well-run bike share program in place. Otherwise, only about 1.5% do, according to a study from the University of Washington.

The coronavirus is forcing people everywhere to reconsider their transportation options. It doesn’t make much sense to spend $40,000 or more on a car, plus pay to insure and maintain it, if it is sitting home in the garage unused and unloved most of the time. Cities may also begin to rethink their public transportation systems, as the idea of packing people into closed metal boxes on wheels deep underground seems less appealing when a significant number of them may be carrying an infectious disease. For that matter, the whole idea of packing tightly into cities in the first place may get a rethink in the post coronavirus era. The times they are a’changing. Boy, howdy, are they ever!

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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