In order to maintain safe social distancing outside, people of all ages including children are needing to use the whole street space far more – for walking, cycling, scooting – as pavements are often not wide enough to pass at 2m. With reduced traffic levels, many younger children are also enjoying the chance to ride their bikes on the road for the first time. Streets need to be safe, shared spaces for all to use during this time.
As highlighted in this paper published today by Alison Stenning and Wendy Russell, and in this open letter to government, co-signed by national walking and cycling organisations, opening up streets as safe public spaces during this time is a key way to ensure that everyone is able to follow the guidelines on social distancing, whilst outdoors for exercise or essential journeys.
This is especially important for children, who are more vulnerable to fast-moving traffic – less likely to be seen or to judge distances and speed, more “wobbly” on their feet and their bikes, and less able to quickly leap onto the pavement when a car comes round the corner.
It has been one of the most notable positive side-effects of the lockdown: motorised road traffic has reduced to “1950s levels”, enabling people, even young children, to walk and cycle in the road. But this should be made safer and more possible for everyone – particularly for inner-city children who don’t have easy access to green space or back gardens – to get their daily exercise and time outside.
There are concerns that the emptier roads are actually leading some thoughtless drivers to speed. And, in busier places, people are still being pushed onto the pavement, where it is impossible to pass at a safe 2m distance.
The campaign group 20 is Plenty and the BMJ are jointly calling for a national lowering of speed limits to reduce pressure on the NHS. We would add to this a need for drivers to not just ‘stick to’ the speed limit but to be extra slow and careful, looking out for and giving way to pedestrians and especially children walking or cycling in the road. Alongside this, we also (unfortunately) need the police to be forceful in tackling speeding, careless or dangerous driving.
We know that organised play street sessions can’t happen at the moment, as it would be impossible to maintain social distancing. But residential and public streets generally could be made safer and more child-friendly during this time.
Government has already clarified to local authorities that they are able to repurpose streets for walking and cycling – and has made this simpler to do during Covid-19. Sustrans has also produced a very useful page for councils providing practical advice and ideas. One idea is to completely close certain public roads to cars, to create space for socially-distanced exercise, as Brighton council has done and other councils are looking into. Other ways to physically re-prioritise residential streets include widening pavements, creating cycle lanes and putting in traffic-slowing measures.
Underpinning these physical changes to re-prioritise and make streets safer, a change of attitude and culture is at least as important. Right now, more than ever, we just need a basic shared understanding – supported by government, councils, police and the general public – that streets are for people, not just for cars.
As well as making streets safer, we are asking government to clarify in their guidance and messaging that children playing outside in streets and parks – within their own family group and at a safe 2m distance from others – is a legitimate form of daily exercise and a “reasonable excuse” to be outside.
Image thanks to @NeilMurphy1978 – Jesmond Rd, Newcastle