Car free in a crisis

‘Is there really nowhere that you want to go, that you can’t get to now?’ I was asked by an incredulous young woman at a conference earlier in the year, the week before lockdown ended conferences as we knew them. We were talking about rural transport issues; having outed myself as purposefully car-free I then had to explain to the horrified teenager that the lifestyle of a middle aged working mother meant that Friday nights were a rare and valued opportunity to see my own sofa, not a time to head out to the clubs, restaurants and bars in the nearest city. I don’t need a car now but, thinking back to my own teenage life in suburban Surrey, I totally understood why she did.

I passed my driving test at 18 and, thanks to the generosity (continuing, as they had paid for the lessons) of my parents, my world widened from behind the wheel of Gabriel, a Nissan Cherry of a similar vintage to me. Gabriel and Β£10 of petrol every week or so freed me from fear of walking alone on dark nights, from obligations to people I didn’t know well enough to feel safe with and gave me the freedom to choose when and where I went. I loved that car and the independence it gave me and, by association, my younger sister who more than once had to be picked up somewhere ridiculous in the middle of the night. Examination of the parental photo albums has sadly not produced a picture of Gabriel, but this is Bazhov, who followed after Gabriel finally lost his long battle with rust:

I’ve not owned my own car for about 20 years, but between generous partners and affordable rental I’ve had access to a car when I’ve needed one. With a few adventurous exceptions, my car use has been principally for adulting – moving house, obtaining chickens and ferrets*, collecting furniture and stretching the working day by travelling before the first train starts and after the last train has gone. It’s only since the passing of Car Forup three years ago that I’ve made a conscious decision that I won’t be driving again unless there is an actual emergency. I’ve also recognised the privilege of this position, living close to a train station, choosing work that doesn’t require a commute and the income to live somewhere that I don’t want to escape from every weekend.

*Chicks, when my (carfree) friend Jane was going through a chicken rearing phase (ferrets obtained separately)

Being car-free has restricted my choices but has bought its own freedoms. I can’t drive into the big city to catch that 6am train from Edinburgh for a meeting in Birmingham, collect anyone from a late night flight or act as a taxi service for small children. I don’t have to parallel park ever again. We’ve made irregular use of the local car club since Car Forup went to the great parking lot in the sky and little has changed since I reviewed our first year of living carlessly. We use the car club less than we expected despite it being easy, cheap and just around the corner. Not having a private car sat outside our house means that driving is always a considered choice because we have to book ahead, even if just an hour before we want it. Over the last six months our overwhelming choice has been not to travel unless we can do it by bicycle.

The different stages of Coronavirus have shone a light on travel and transport choices as we determined what essential journeys were, and how we should undertake them. Whilst the middle classes have been overwhelmingly freed from their daily commutes, the choice to work from home is not available for everyone, with 22% of workers in disadvantaged households working from home full time compared to 53% in more affluent households. Without access to affordable, safe and convenient alternatives the most disadvantaged could be forced into car ownership that they cannot afford.

With car use returning to pre-pandemic levels, we are back to the pre-pandemic conversation about equitable use of our street space, but through a sharper lens that has seen a glimpse of a low-traffic future. Infrastructure can provide safe separation from motorised vehicles, but removing the vehicles from the streets will put people at the heart of our places. We are now looking at 20 minute neighbourhoods and all the positive possibilities they promise, but proximity to services is just one part of the puzzle. We also need to address the current and future levels of private car ownership and how we build low-traffic neighbourhoods.

Car ownership in the UK has gone up over the last 30 years, almost doubling between my teenage years and now, and although the cost of car ownership and driving has decreased in real terms, it is still an expense. We know car ownership tends to increase with affluence, but those in rural areas of all income levels own cars because of the lack of alternatives. Meanwhile, the cost of public transport has increased and bus patronage is falling.

Travel choices are complex but with private cars sitting outside the homes of 72% of Scots, I’m unconvinced we will see a step change in mode share until that number has declined significantly. Unfortunately it’s not enough to enable the behaviour you want, you need to discourage the behaviour you don’t. Even in high cycling countries, with infrastructure that Scotland can only dream of, car ownership and use continues to increase as a function of affluence and lack of other measures to prevent it rising.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

attributed to various people on the internet

Those frothing that we already have a war on cars are suddenly finding themselves the protectors of the disabled and elderly, something that disabled campaigners have raised a sceptical eye at.

Whilst we must protect the mobility and freedom of disabled people, decisions should be led by their needs and experiences not appropriated by those with another agenda related to their own driving intentions.

Our addiction to cars is a public health crisis – contributing to ill health through inactivity and air pollution, as well as death and injury from collisions and worldwide impacts due to climate change – and we should think of it in those terms. All of the evidence tells us we need to reduce the number of private cars on the road, remove the most harmful quickly and prevent people buying the most polluting and destructive. SUV ownership alone is an escalating climate crisis – together they emit more carbon than the UK and the Netherlands combined – and sales have increased to become 40% of all cars purchased in 2019.

The recent UK Climate Assembly Report contained some interesting insights from ‘normal people’ (as opposed to cycle campaigners) on the carrots and sticks of a low carbon future, wrestling with the ultimate chicken and egg of sustainable transport policy: how do we reduce car use and increase active and sustainable transport, whilst not exacerbating inequalities or unduly restricting ‘personal choice’? It seems people won’t give up their cars until the alternatives are more convenient, and alternatives won’t be more convenient (safe or attractive) until there are less cars on the roads where we live, work and play.

Encouraging people to change transport modes by providing and incentivising alternatives found most favour with the UK Climate Assembly members – measures such as investment in public and sustainable transport infrastructure and provision, increasing demand response transport, cheaper public transport, car scrappage schemes and mobility as a service (MaaS) schemes. Whilst some of these options are already available, they all need significant investment to scale them as mainstream options for everyone.

The carrots offer choice and personal agency, but car ownership and use in high cycling countries probably indicates that it’s not enough to help us reach a low-carbon future that will protect the planet for generations to come. With the caveat that low-cost mobility (motorised or otherwise) for disabled people should be maintained wherever necessary, and those in economic disadvantage and rural areas need specific solutions, if we want to reduce car dominance of our towns and cities we might want to look at some of these options that come with a stick attached:

Shift what we think of as normal by banning car advertising: the motor industry spends at least US$35.5bn on advertising a year, and although some of the Climate Assembly didn’t think this was influential on consumer choices, I think there’s a reason why an industry spends more on advertising than the GDP of 91 of the worlds poorest countries. Advertising shapes our world view, even unconsciously, and therefore our attitudes and choices. Let’s stop glamorising and normalising car ownership and driving, or at least point out the harm it does as we did for cigarettes.

And let’s see more of this:

Dutch e-bike advert, banned in France

Make driving pay the full costs: Driving a motorised vehicle is a cost to society and we should make individuals pay to exercise that choice, just as we should for the privilege for storing private property on public land. Implementing higher parking fees, increasing fuel tax, introducing congestion charges and a workplace parking levy and increasing tax paid on the most polluting cars will put a value on our space and make drivers pay a rate that incorporates negative external costs. When all the financial costs are borne by the individual, and not wider society, we might see that it’s just not worth maintaining or storing metal boxes in places where we could have trees, playgrounds, plants, parks and seating instead.

On street trampoline in Amsterdam

Design cars out of our homes and communities: I’m not a planner or road engineer, so forgive my complete ignorance but I had no idea that providing space for three cars outside a home wasn’t considered to have an impact on car ownership levels. This figure (p167 of the The National Roads Development Guide) shows the privileged position we give to cars in new housing developments, with parking minimums instead of maximums, literally driving us towards climate change, congestion and ill health. Instead of this we should be moving towards developments that provide space for people, removing space dedicated to private cars and enabling easy access to walking, wheeling and cycling.

Continuing to design our towns and cities around motor vehicle movements and investing in infrastructure for cars excludes the most vulnerable from our communities, compromises investment in carbon neutral transport and reduces the urban environment to transport corridors. With around 2600 working days left until catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable, we don’t have long enough to rely on carrots.

Love your local

Dunbar Bear in the winter sunset

Love it or loathe it, local has been the only option for most of the world in recent months. I’ve taken my time to love where I live, but lockdown has highlighted the pleasures (and privilege) of calling this part of East Lothian home, where a 10 minute cycle can take you through town to woodlands and beaches against the backdrop of an everchanging seascape.

‘Community’ is a quicksilver and contested concept, but it felt palpable this spring as local volunteers put notes through doors to find who needed assistance and our local school parent council swung into action to ensure every child had a laptop for distance learning. The essential shops stepped up and provided vital provisions in the safest way that they could; our small community-owned grocery swiftly moved to a delivery-only service to prioritise the shielding community and the local supermarket staff worked round the clock to restock, providing a friendly smile at the same time.

We’re all adjusting to a new normal for the long haul now; where our commuter train services are relatively deserted, many of us don’t know when we’ll see the inside of an office or meeting room again and most of us don’t want to return to office working full time anyway. Coronavirus isn’t the only change agent around either; climate change hasn’t gone away and we’re looking straight into recession. It’s now even more evident than ever that we need a more radical change to the way we live now and into the future, providing an equitable quality of life for all over unsustainable rises in standard of living for the few.

The rise in homeworking and reluctance to restart expensive and soul-destroying commutes are perhaps why the 15 minute city and the 20 minute neighbourhood have started to gain attention beyond the usual suspects. If exchanging a long drive for a short walk to work has the same impact as a raise of 40% or falling in love, it’s possible that working where you live will make us all happier, as well addressing climate chaos and air pollution.

Most of us live in a town, or something that looks like one; 90% of Scots live in settlements of more than 500 people although they cover just 2% of our land area, and around 4.5m of us live in settlements of over 3000. Even our cities are more like collections of towns, with clustered services and a clear identity that defines them from the wider anonymity of a city.

Our decision to live in a small town was driven by marital compromise and economic reality, with my husband needing a substantial garden to call his own and I shuddered at the thought of being too far from my beloved Edinburgh. We live on the High Street, where you can find a butcher, baker and candlesticks (if not their maker), a greengrocer, a Co-op, two pharmacies, a sports shop, fishmonger, two charity shops, numerous cafes, gift shops, two galleries, a fancy beer shop and a (peculiarly high) level of hairdressing and beauty establishments. The bike shop is round the corner, we have primary and secondary schools and a three-practice GP centre and a train station. All of the 9000 or so residents of our former royal burgh are within a 10 minute cycle ride of these services, and yet the High Street looks like a car park and our streets crawl with vehicles.

Our High Street has a lovely ice-cream shop, but you’ll get a taste of petrol with your chosen flavour if you stand outside on the street for long. What could turn High Streets like mine from transport corridors where cars loiter to places that people want to linger?

Dunbar and surrounds, showing area within 10 minute cycle of the High Street

Spending so much time in the same few square miles has sharpened my focus on what I love about my town, but also on what I’d like to be different as we loosen lockdown and look to revitalise civic and social life, revive the economy and establish longer-term working patterns that protects people and planet. We need to recreate (and re-engineer) our town centres as places that care for people, that create space to linger, providing sustainable services that don’t cost the earth – and where walking, wheeling and cycling are the natural, safe and convenient choice for most, not just because of a public health crisis keeping cars off the road.

The Town Centre Action Plan Review call for evidence might have slipped under your radar as Spaces for People and related consultations have drawn most of the active travel attention. Despite some years as a cycle campaigner, I confess I’m a complete stranger to the Town Centre Action Plan. Having found it I wondered if the Town Centre First Principle guidance letter got lost somewhere on the way to East Lothian because all I can see springing up is out-of-town development.

Question 8 in the public survey asks ‘What could be done to improve local town centres’ and this will be my response – my Ten Tenets for a Ten Minute Town:

  • Pedestrianisation – it creates the space needed for people to distance and provides an experience that encourages to lingering; business owners consistently overestimate how much trade comes from people in cars but you can’t argue with this:
  • Reprioritise private car parking spaces – for car share vehicles, taxis and disabled drivers that need that access protected, and on-street, secure cycle storage for town centre flat dwellers and short-term cycle parking for shoppers and visitors.
  • Reallocate road space – to accommodate networks of separate and protected space for walking, wheeling and cycling, keeping everyone safe in their space at the pace that works for their needs
  • Designate on and off street loading bays and a significant investment in wheeled trolleys and the time to use them – to reverse the delivery driver priorities that create pavement, cycle path and double parking and the excuses that go with them.
  • Create happy homeworker services – even if we are allowed to go back into offices, it seems that most of us would just rather not do it. Invest in co-working and meeting spaces, provide high quality digital connections and be prepared for people wanting to spend time and money in the community that they live in if you create the right environment
  • Nurture a local wellbeing economy with the places and space we have available in our towns – incentivise the green, healthy and fair so that our small cycle shops can flourish with confidence, local food growers can provide quality produce on an affordable budget and it makes sense to repair and reuse (and not reorder) because the means to do so are on the doorstep and available to everyone
  • Repurpose empty shops into integrated logistics hubs where cargo bikes deliveries can take the strain for those that want their High Street shopping delivered to their doors – it will reduce car journeys and associated pollution and congestion and protect those that need to stay at home.
  • Create attractive and accessible places and spaces that don’t require a financial transaction to use them – benches, pocket parks, play space – so sticky streets aren’t just for those that can afford to sit down but for everyone.
  • Develop accessible transport hubs – that will loan you a bike, non-standard cycle or mobility scooter to suit your individual needs, a helping hand to get onto a train or bus without pre-booking and point for local leisure and tourism information
  • Join up your policy and implement it – Town Centre transport measures need to be in tandem with housing development, which is currently in-built with car ownership as standard, so that you can walk, wheel and cycle from your doorstep into the new and more sustainable normal. Build nothing that looks like this:

The Town Centre Review call for evidence is now closed but the public survey is open until 30 September. As the philosophers Moloko said so emphatically ‘the time is now’ – get responding and tell the review group that the future of our town centres shouldn’t be motorised.

Space for Everyone

Dear Cllr Innes and Ms Patterson

Firstly, I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for the work that you and colleagues are doing to ensure the safety of East Lothian’s population during the Covid19 crisis. I know you must be working around the clock to protect our elderly and vulnerable residents, ensure that our schools continue to provide education online and maintain all the lifeline services that are so desperately needed.

Now we have adjusted to the immediate crisis situation, we are already thinking ahead to a world beyond the lockdown; we know there will be different challenges as people try to re-establish connections with friends and family, get back to work and education within continued social distancing restrictions. It’s vital that decisions are made now that will safeguard residents, and reduce our impact on the NHS, over the coming months.

I’m writing to ask you to consider measures that will create and maintain safe spaces, particularly in our towns, for people as we start this next ‘new normal’ for the following reasons:

Air pollution will impact those already most vulnerable to Coronavirus

During lockdown there has been a reduced level of motorised traffic, and consequently reduced levels of air pollution. Evidence suggests that our shielded communities and most vulnerable residents are likely to be at more risk if air pollution starts to increase, with emerging evidence suggesting that Coronovirus could be transmitted in pollution particles. This new information only adds to the body of research that shows the negative impact of air pollution on human health.

Maintaining low levels of motorised traffic will be vital in enabling our most at risk residents to come out of isolation. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that low levels of car use has enabled more people to cycle safely for essential journeys, as well as their daily exercise, which will have a positive impact on all our health and wellbeing.

Additional space is required for those with impaired mobility to have equal and safe access to services

Decades of land use decisions have lead to prioritisation of motorised transport in our towns and cities, with limited street space dedicated to pavements and separated cycle lanes. Whilst this has always been a challenge for people that walk and cycle for transport, the need for social distancing means it is now particularly difficult for people that use wheelchairs, older people and blind or visually impaired people. Whilst we all have responsibility to be considerate and reduce the risk of close contact we do now need reallocation of road space to provide more room for safe walking, cycling and wheeling, particularly in town centres and along popular leisure routes.

We risk exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities

It’s true, as the First Minister stated, that ‘we’re all in this together’, but it has been widely recognised that we’re in the same storm, not the same boat; we know that those who are already most disadvantaged will have worse outcomes from this crisis. We know that women and in lower income households are more reliant on public transport, which may carry an increased risk of infection if we do experience a ‘second wave’. Families without adequate space for children to play, people with no private outdoor space and families that do not have access to a car will benefit from additional safe public space to exercise and access services within walking, cycling and wheeling distance from their homes.

Towns and cities across the world are using temporary measures to enable key workers to cycle safely, and others are already looking at a road reallocation revolution instead of returning to ‘normal’.

There are no silver linings to this crisis, but enabling more people to walk and cycle safely, accessing shops and services without the need for a private car would be a long-term benefit to people in East Lothian.

It’s been reported that traffic is starting to return to our roads in some areas of Scotland, and it’s certainly felt that way on my regular cycle routes between Dunbar, Haddington and North Berwick this week.

I appreciate that you have competing priorities, limited resources and are no doubt worried for your own families as well as our communities across East Lothian. But now is the time to act on measures that are preventative and will make a significant difference to the health of our population in the weeks and months to come.

Yours sincerely, and with very best wishes to you and your families

The Forup Family

Normal 2.0

We’re still carrying on here with the aid of cycling and cake but, in the spirit of adaptation to new circumstances, are bringing gin cocktails in to the equation to welcome the weekend and set sail to our beloved Scottish islands – if just in our imagination.

There has been a two week ‘Easter holiday’ respite from the outpouring of Google Classroom, so one source of anxiety has been in abeyance at least, although trying to manage a child whilst conducting back to back Teams meetings probably wasn’t particularly well received by any of the parties getting half my attention. Always late to a party, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for audiobooks and particularly the varied works of David Walliams; his daily readings have provided light relief and distraction for at least one member of our household, although it has unfortunately increased the discussion of bottoms, toilets and associated fluids.

Obviously I’ve got nothing but the C19 version of first world problems; this beautiful and reflective blog by a GP in Hackney details the inequalities that the current situation is compounding better than anything else I’ve read. The daily tweets from Nursing Notes rip at my heart as I carry on avoiding the storm that is taking the lives of so many that already have a life of public service behind them.

The interweb is full of posts about adjustment to ‘the new normal’, a phrase that I’m completely over, despite it being just a few weeks old (see also furlough, social distancing and flattening the curve) as it seems an understated sanitisation of activity that incorporates working from home alongside the ever-present spectre of death. I’m glad to see the proponents of using the ‘great pause’ for self development have been shouted down by people suggesting that getting dressed and not drunk by 10am is a win.

Just four weeks in, and no real end in sight, and the commentary about what we don’t want to get back to has already started. There are no silver linings in a crisis that is costing so many so much, but it’s clear that we don’t want to go back to what was our normal. I’ve seen calls for ‘build back better’, but we need to ensure its not just improving the seating arrangements on the Titanic we were on. A just recovery will require a complete revolution in how we use our resources, for the benefit of all and not the few, in alignment with planetary capacity.

It’s probably no secret that my contribution to almost all issues, local to global, is that cycling is probably the answer. However, I’m well aware that asking our local authorities to do anything other than cope with providing essential services to the most vulnerable could be seen as insensitive. But looking at our streets it’s never been more clear that space allocation is set to prioritise the movement and storage of metal boxes, and not people on foot, bicycle, scooter or wheelchair.

If we don’t act now we risk coming out of lockdown straight into carmageddon and back to its negative impact on our long-term health.

My Twitterverse is an avalanche of the emergency responses other countries are making to provide more space for safe walking and cycling, and the long-term opportunities to create better cities that enable activity and access for all. I know those conversation are happening in Scotland, but we all need to play our part in supporting our politicians and officials to make choices now that will create the path to the future we want.

Pedal on Parliament are calling for #SpaceforDistancing, as enabling people to choose walking and cycling as lockdown ends will be vital in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of communities across Scotland. Out on our daily exercise yesterday it didn’t take long for my mini-campaigner to suggest pavements and footpaths around our town that aren’t adequate for safe distancing. Rest assured we’ll be practising our handwriting skills on this topic shortly.

It seems like there’s no time to waste, and reaching out to our decision makers is vital, but we also need to remember that there is a person behind every public sector and political social media account and email address, a human that is also worried about the future. They could be fearing for their key worker partner or scared that their parents won’t see the other side of this crisis. They could be covering for unwell colleagues, or simply overworked in our strained public services. In our passion for progress, let’s remember to be kind too and try to be the people remembered for compassion in a crisis – not just critics.

Keep calm and carry on with cycling and cake

At the time of writing cycling and cake are both legal, but judging by the media commentary on the Sunday sunshine tempting Londoners out of their homes the cycling element might not last for long.

Two weeks into lockdown and we are well aware of our household’s privilege, with a home that has enough room for solitary confinement, continued employment and sparsely populated, glorious outdoors available on our doorstep.

Like many households not yet in the eye of the Coronovirus storm, we are trying to keep calm and carry on by juggling work, home learning and monitoring the notifications from the local community resilience group. We each have our (different) preferred form of exercise but the Lesser Spotted Cycling Husband has gained some moral superiority as his is a manly display of digging for victory.

Being middle-aged with a prematurely born primary aged child has proved to be a reasonable training ground for coping with a global pandemic – we can wash hands with the best of them, understand that physical distance keeps you safe from people incubating disease and have not gone to a public house on a Friday night for almost a decade. We also know what it is to fear for the life of someone you love, and that placing your trust and hope in the NHS is rarely wrong.

The internet is awash with advice on how make best use of this pause in ‘normal’, but I’m finding that being in a pause is quite enough. At work I’m wading through the paperwork to ensure that we can soon provide useful and safe cycling services to key workers throughout the crisis. At home (conveniently co-located with work for the last four years) I’m trying not to let the unending flow of emails and learning activities into my son’s Google Classroom account give me parental performance anxiety.

To combat stress I’m relying on cycling and cake, having found through long-term use that both help me keep the balance I need to be a reasonable wife, parent and colleague. State sanctioned exercise once a day in the form of cycling feels slightly virtuous for once as it’s appeared as an actual directive from both NHS Scotland and Scottish Government.

The cake is perhaps less obviously virtuous but, given that my son’s interest in the contents of his Google Classroom is the inverse of mine, we’re looking for engaging learning activities in the wild and ‘baking’ has been the only activity that has ever induced him to voluntarily write anything down. We have already produced two cakes, pizza and a set of scones (of dubious quality) so at this rate we might manage enough content for a Coronavirus Cook Book by the end of lockdown, if absolutely nothing else.

Life has changed immeasurably, and perhaps forever, in ways that we can’t yet know. We do know that those already disadvantaged will come out worst from this global crisis, and some are just realising that ‘key worker’ is a term that applies to people that we pay the least. At the moment I’m just going to wait awhile in the pause, braced for what might come and with gratitude and awe of those that are fighting head on for us all.