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A street near London Bridge full of vehicles and pedestrians
A street near London Bridge full of vehicles and pedestrians

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Covid-19 has shown the benefits a less car-reliant London would see

In the second of two blogs from London Sport colleagues we’re publishing around Car Free Day on Sunday 20 September, Senior Insight Officer Josef Baines looks at the growing evidence-base for a less car-reliant city and the benefits it would bring.

As a deaf person, the thought of cycling through London makes me nervous. 

The idea of witnessing a situation where a deaf cyclist, unable to hear shouts of warning around them, finds themselves caught up in a tragic road accident is among my worst nightmares.

Add in concerns around polluted air and stories of cyclists having to deal with aggressive, careless or unaware road users, and my instant reaction is that I’d prefer to rely on public transport or the car.

The evidence would suggest I’m not alone. 

Data held on our refreshed Insight Portal’s Active Travel dashboard shows a high proportion of journeys made across London (35%) are still made by car. 

At the same time, data also shows that walking and cycling in London have seen steady upward trends since the turn of the millennium; TfL’s latest travel report shows cycling numbers increasing annually, outstripping the natural rises expected from population growth. 

Nevertheless, the proportion of Londoners cycling daily remains lower than other travel modes: normalising active travel in London is going to require work.

There’s a good reason that we should consider it important.

Despite its size, the amount of space available to people in London is small. 

As our population grows, adding more cars to a congested transport infrastructure will slow down transit, reduce space even further, and risk raising pollution levels.

Meanwhile, data shows rising obesity levels, a progressive decline in spending on physical activity interventions and rising mental health challenges, with the impacts of covid-19 only likely to exacerbate challenges further.

But if all that feels a bit dystopian, let’s take a moment to imagine a car-free London. Think of all of the possibilities a car-free city, with limitless transport routes and sustainable transport options, would offer.

Perhaps we’d have a greater sense of autonomy, control and options in where we want to go. The new places we might explore, the new experiences we might have.

Perhaps we would have more of an opportunity to slow down, to breathe in fresh air, to feel relaxed and safe. Perhaps even to appreciate life a little more.

On a practical level alone, there are alluring benefits to shifting away from car usage.

The space required by one car to park can provide storage for 10 bicycles. In 2018, there were 2.6 million licensed cars in London: just imagine all the extra space that would be available to us if we moved away from car usage.

A car-free city, or at least a significantly less car-reliant city, does not need to be a utopian vision. The covid-19 lockdown showed us the possibilities of reducing car usage in London. 

Centre for London research showed that lockdown saw a huge drop in private hire vehicle and car use, and a significant rise in weekend cycling. 

Meanwhile, a report from the Mayor of London in August 2020 shows that toxic roadside nitrogen oxide levels dropped five times below the national average, resulting in cleaner air and less pollution in central London. 

Through crisis, we’ve been given a flavour of the kind of benefits a less car-reliant London could see.

These potential changes are popular, too. A YouGov poll conducted between 14-19 May showed 86% of Londoners support measures to reduce car use and emissions.

It won’t be easy. 

We need more of us out there on the streets, travelling actively, sending a message to councils and transport planners that the time for prioritising active travel is now. 

We need to shift our mentality of street ownership so they serve the needs of communities. 

We need to show that people who may not think physical activity is for them stand to benefit from a wider cultural shift towards walking, cycling and active travel.

And for people like me? It would be just the shift I’d need to persuade me to jump on my bike instead of into my car. And I’m willing to bet I wouldn’t be alone in that.

London Sport are delighted to be supporting #RUNSOME: a new campaign working to inspire more of us – whoever we are, whatever we look like – to #RunSome everday journeys, errands and commutes. Find out more at www.runsome.org or on Twitter.

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