Bike Week plea for green recovery in Highlands in wake of Covid crisis
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Viewpoint: During Bike Week, John Davidson says we should be using this opportunity to build a better future for all
The humble bicycle appears to be taking centre stage at the moment. Following on from World Bicycle Day last week, we are currently in the middle of Bike Week in the UK.
These events are aimed at celebrating this simple mode of transport, which during the Covid-19 lockdown more and more people are rediscovering or even discovering for the first time.
Just the other day, I watched a neighbour of mine emerge from her drive on a shiny electric mountain bike, all smiles as she waved goodbye to her husband. I’d never seen either of them use a bike before now.
This shift has not gone unnoticed, not only here but across the world, with cities such as Milan dedicating more space to safe cycle routes in order to allow social distancing and also to stop the inevitable congestion that everybody jumping in their cars would bring as public transport capacity is massively reduced.
We may be on a different scale here in the Highlands, but the principle is the same. That’s why we’ve seen Highland Council put forward plans to transform Inverness and other towns across the region, improving cycle routes and even introducing the region’s first properly segregated two-way cycle lanes – albeit on a temporary basis.
It’s an exciting time for those of us who have been pushing for these things for years. These temporary features of our new road space will become tests for the future – if they work, there’s no reason not to keep them and expand the principle.
In fact, at the Highland Cycle Campaign we put together a petition backing the council’s proposals and asking for an even more ambitious approach, including expanding the network across the city to include links to schools and workplaces, lower speed limits on rural commuter roads, keep pavements and cycle lanes clear of parked cars and having exclusion zones around schools at key times.
More than 2200 people have signed the petition so far, showing there is a real enthusiasm to build on this plan and create towns and cities that are safe for people of all ages and abilities to travel around safely.
Highland Council has already responded by saying it is looking at creating ‘green routes’ to every school in Inverness, as well as considering a further application to Sustrans’ Spaces for People fund, which has been increased from £10 million to £30 million across Scotland.
Changes we are going to see in the Highland capital include much wider pavements with separate cycle lanes in parts of the city centre, two-way segregated cycle routes between Inshes roundabout and Inverness Campus, and along Millburn Road, and the opening of the new public transport and cycle/pedestrian bridge from the campus to the business park.
There are many other changes, too, while Aviemore, Dingwall, Fort William, Nairn, Portree and Wick are also set to benefit from investment to increase space for social distancing. As the fund is specific for this purpose, it does not include rural routes.
These changes should come into effect fairly quickly, and I’ve already seen council staff being proactive. Last week, we met – from a distance, of course – one member of the roads team who wanted to measure the Spokes for Folks trikes and other non-standard bikes to ensure bollards used on the routes were set far enough apart.
There’s a real sense of change here that I haven’t felt before. The world is different now and all our experiences of lockdown will have been different, but they are changing how we think and approach our lives.
Lee Craigie, Scotland’s active travel commissioner, who hails from Inverness but lives in Edinburgh, recently posted a video asking what we wanted from a ‘new normal’, acknowledging like many of us that she has perhaps been too quick to travel and not see places closer to home.
Talk of a ‘green recovery’ is not wild hope; tackling climate change and benefiting the economic recovery can go hand in hand. Local shops and producers delivering locally by electric cargo bikes, children cycling to school safely, trikes taking elderly people out from care homes for fresh air once again. The humble bicycle – in its many forms – can be a big part of this recovery.
By allowing more people to be active in their daily lives, we can tackle congestion, improve air quality and reduce inequality. Creating a safe environment to walk and to cycle safely, particularly for short journeys, can be transformational.
For one thing, it can improve the nation’s health and reduce the long-term burden on our NHS; the annual cost of dealing with people who are overweight and obese in Scotland is estimated to be between £360 million and £600 million a year, with indirect consequences said to account for a massive three per cent of gross domestic product. Scotland has the highest obesity rate in the UK.
These wider, societal benefits are in addition to the basic reason I got more involved in campaigning for safer streets – so that my children can get about safely and enjoy some freedom without the threat from increasingly busy roads.
We can build a more positive future post-Covid, a future where we don’t automatically return to the way things were. There will be opposition – there always is when you push for change – but the benefits are clear to see.
If this is the ‘new normal’, let’s get started. But it really is only the start of what we can and must achieve.
Happy Bike Week!
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