It’s hard not to focus on the prospect of a collapsing economy or the collective grief that must be tended to as we emerge from this prolonged stasis.
Yet, for all that lockdown has taken from us, it's revealed glimmers of what our futures can hold: it has opened up, more than ever, the possibility for radical change.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the ways that we get from A to B in our cities. Importantly, ‘B’ – our destination – has changed, with more people working from home than ever before, the anachronistic demand that workers force themselves through the crush of rush hour to sit at their company’s desk has lost its power.
While working from home has exposed weaknesses in our care system that urgently need addressing - with loneliness increasing and tensions rising between our domestic and professional labour - it has also had a profound impact on our transport system.
Transport for London (TfL), which had £2.2 billion in cash reserves before lockdown commenced, has seen a massive drop in the network’s use, forcing the organisation to make a bad bailout deal with the government.
Conditions of the deal include: fares being raised; exemptions for older and younger riders being scrapped; and government officials being appointed to TfL’s board.
This raft of restrictive measures is nothing new, coming from a Conservative government that forced TfL to become a self-funding organisation in 2015. No doubt, the social failings that result from TfL’s latest contortion will be politicised in 2021’s mayoral election.
As use of the public transport network dropped, so did the use of the capital’s roads. Pollution cleared, the skies opened up and we all breathed a little more freely. Pollution in the busiest places fell by as much as 50 percent during lockdown and over 70 percent of Londoners noticed and preferred it.
In response to this vocal majority, Sadiq Khan worked to prevent cars from accessing major roads and bridges in the capital.
But these efforts have not been systemic enough. As lockdown has eased, we’ve seen pollution bounce back to pre-lockdown levels. Inevitably, people fear that they won’t be able to socially distance on public transport. Not so inevitably, people are climbing into their cars as a response to this fear.
Up to one million more cars could end up on English and Welsh roads if commuters switch from buses, trams and trains. We can swerve this disaster by calling for rapid, system-wide changes in our transport system, changes that could mean two million more people walking or cycling to work.
Though the government is doing some work to encourage local authorities to facilitate more active travel, including releasing a £250 million emergency fund for active travel, a decade of Tory cuts to council funding is hampering progress.
Even if we believe that this band of boyish free marketeers is going to ‘end austerity’, the government’s plan to spend five times more on expanding the UK’s road network than on bus and bicycle infrastructure indicates a severe lack of leadership when it comes to the reformation of transport.
Waiting for Conservative politicians to come to the right conclusion on transport could prove fatal. As happened in Amsterdam in the 1970s, communities need to push for local (and national) changes that work for them. Now.
In the 1970s, Amsterdammers ran a persistent and successful campaign to win back their streets. Utilising creative protest and political engagement, communities threw feasts on the streets, held mass cycling demonstrations and occupied traffic hotspots, blocking cars and freeing up roads for play and socialising.
So far, concerted action has led to traffic bans on Sundays, the designation of civil servants with specific responsibilities over maintaining and developing cycling networks, the unionisation of private bicycle owners and users and the building of over 22,000 miles of cycle paths nationally.
Londoners have a strong preference for less air pollution and access to a diverse network of local climate groups. We also have an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Amsterdam.
As the glorious proliferation of Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups demonstrated, there is huge energy for community activism in London. We just need an urgent and compelling enough issue for our communities to organise round.
The prospect of overhauling our toxic transport system and making space for beautiful and fair, green streets will resonate with millions of Londoners. Some groups are working to do just this (such as here and here).
With plenty of alternative modes of travel and solutions for reducing traffic in urban areas, as well as a clear energy for community activism, there’s huge opportunity for communities to come together to demand a cleaner, quieter and more equitable transport system.
Samuel Hayward works on climate change campaigns in London.