COVID-19 walking and cycling gains need to be locked in, reports CREDS and Decarbon8

30 March 2021

People in England and Scotland have adopted lower carbon travel options during the pandemic, new research has found. Newly-released survey data shows that people have walked and cycled more, and worked and shopped more online than ever before.

Researchers from CREDS and the DecarboN8 network have been tracking how and why travel patterns have been changing in response to the pandemic restrictions. Car use has not recovered and car sales are down, despite very low public transport use, say the report's authors, Greg Marsden, Jillian Anable, Iain Docherty and Llinos Brown.

Their report argues that the shift to active travel – walking and cycling – needs to be consolidated and extended to meet the UK’s net-zero carbon goals. The  team calls for a major realignment of investment and policy to ensure there is not a not return to the previous "overcrowded, congested, polluting and unhealthy" transport system that people had come to accept as inevitable. The researchers recommend that the government’s investment plans should be altered to focus on creating high-quality neighbourhoods where people can walk and cycle to work, shops and services, and safe routes to schools and town and city centres.

Walking – the cheapest and easiest transport option for many – has been a big winner during the pandemic. Of those surveyed, there was an increase from 36% of people walking at least three days a week before the first lockdown to 56% of people walking at least three days a week by October 2020. The report authors say this "massive shift" has been hidden in plain sight because walking is often ignored in what gets counted.

There was also a significant increase in cycling, the team reports. The warm conditions of the first lockdown in Spring 2020 saw levels increase two to threefold. Even in winter, levels of cycling held up remarkably well. The report points out that the UK and Scottish Governments invested to support the rapid introduction of schemes to provide more space for walking and cycling. The authors say this investment supported trips that people have wanted to make more of and offers great public health outcomes.