Published: 06:00, 14 May 2020
A radical redesign of high streets and a rethink on the school-run could take place across Kent to reduce car use and allow more space and safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
With many cars off the roads, lockdown has led to cleaner air and quieter streets. It has also seen a surge in cycling and walking.
The Government is now calling for local authorities to reconfigure roads and parking spaces to avoid a spike in air pollution levels once restrictions end.
It is also suggesting car-free zones around schools.
Air pollution has long been linked to health concerns including impaired lung function and increased asthma rates.
Two recent studies even suggest a link between high levels of air pollution and increased Covid-19 death rates - though it is accepted it is too early to prove a connection.
With the Prime Minister this week calling on workers to return to their workplaces where possible, but avoid using public transport, many are being urged to walk or cycle instead of driving.
Not only will this encourage residents to live healthier, more active lives, but it will also allow social distancing to be maintained and relieve pressure on public transport while the virus still lurks.
Billed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as a “once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting, transformative change”, the Government has pledged to spend £2 billion on improving bicycle and pedestrian routes.
This is part of the £5 billion the Prime Minister allocated to bus and cycle routes in February.
Councils are being asked to use the first stage of investment, £250 million, to create emergency cycle lanes and widen pavements to allow more people to pass at a safe distance.
Cones or temporary barriers may be used to quickly turn traffic lanes into makeshift cycle lanes or widen pathways, particularly outside popular shops or bus stops.
"This is a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting, transformative change"
Pedestrian and cycle zones could appear in towns, banning cars at certain times of the day, more cycle racks erected, and speed limits reduced.
The trial of e-scooters - which are currently banned from roads and pavements in the UK - has also been brought forward from next year to next month.
Vouchers will be issued for cycle repairs and it is hoped more people will take up the Cycle to Work scheme, which gives employees discounts on new bikes.
Children could be encouraged to walk to school by introducing ‘school streets’, where traffic is restricted at pick-up and drop-off times.
The Government says measurements should be taken “within weeks”, to ensure changes are in place as the nation begins to gradually relax lockdown restrictions.
But authorities are warned to still consider access for blue badge holders, deliveries and other essential services as appropriate.
Kent County Council highways and transport cabinet member Cllr Michael Payne says the initiative is “welcomed news” but that we need make sure bus companies are not forgotten.
He said: “Whilst it won’t mean that all pavements can be widened and all roads given new speed restrictions, simply because it will not be affordable, it might mean the ability to trial certain ideas that hadn’t previously been funded.”
He added: “If the quid pro quo for supporting cycling and walking relieves pressure on public transport then we mustn’t forget that will need subsidy as well.
“Without support now, our bus companies and the like will simply not be there for people when life returns to normal.”
The council’s opposition environment spokesman Cllr Ian Chittenden says Kent authorities “have been trying to encourage more cycling for a number of years” but been restricted by “severe cuts”.
However, several areas of Maidstone have been upgraded such as the River Medway footpath between Barming and Aylesford and the town centre streets regenerated to give them a "more pedestrian feel".
Cllr Chittenden says it is "now down to both the county and borough councils to work up the strategy into a workable plan for making the changes to our roads".
Areas of the County Town he highlights as possibles for change are converting a lane on the A249 from the bottom of Blue Bell Hill into the town centre for bikes and buses and part of the Sutton Road to become a temporary cycle lane.
But the Lib Dem councillor raises concerns for the safety of cyclists on the roads, and says discouraging the use of public transport will “not help maintain safe routes”.
He said: “This will need to be reconsidered as soon as possible once our public transport services have established safer ways of maintaining safe distances within buses and trains.”
Closing the high street to cars, staging open-air events and managing flow of pedestrians are just some of the ideas named so far.