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Spaces for People: a personal reflection from Glasgow

A personal perspective by James Bonner, who has written numerous LGIU pieces on sustainable mobility and active travel, on Scottish Government’s ‘Spaces for People’ programme that has been rolled out during the Covid-19 pandemic. He reflects on his experiences during the period in Glasgow, how this aligns with previous writing on active travel, and some of the potential challenges and issues that lie ahead.

Thinking back to February and where we were…

In late February I was on a short cycling trip in Belgium, including visiting the historic city of Ghent (Gent) and happy to be pedalling in a part of the world I enjoy so much. During my trip I had been collecting some information for a planned LGIU article on steps Ghent had introduced throughout 2019 to make its city centre ‘car-free’, and I was considering spending some extra time in the Netherlands – the place to look to for ‘how to do’ active travel. However, as I heard news about the spread of Covid-19 in mainland Europe, I decided to cut my trip short and cycle back to the Belgian coast, and take a ferry and train back to Glasgow.

The next few weeks brought significant changes in how we carried out our daily lives. For someone who spends much of their time cycling, this meant staying at home much more than I was used to. Lockdown restrictions permitted a daily, solitary form of outdoor exercise. For me, this would be some time on my bike, into which I incorporated grocery shopping trips and picking up essentials for others who were restricted in their ability to travel. Cycling to a city centre supermarket, the near desolate streets emphasised the amount of space we have come to apportion to motorised vehicles.

From late March, instructions from UK and Scottish Government reiterated the need for us to maintain physical/social distancing when outside, while the use of public transport was limited to key workers. At the same time, outdoor exercise was being encouraged due to recognition of its mental and physical health benefits. On social media, a ‘Space For Distancing’ campaign had begun to gather support, highlighting the need for better apportioning of space for active travel modes such as walking, cycling and wheeling so people could safely move around when they needed to.

Recognising the value in cycling, walking and wheeling infrastructure

Glasgow city council responded quickly by banning motorised traffic on the Kelvin Way near the city’s Kelvingrove Park and installing a pop-up cycle lane along the River Clyde at Broomielaw/Clyde Street. They secured £3.5 million from Scottish Government’s ‘Spaces for People’ fund which had been set up to support local authorities reapportion road space for safer active travel. The council committed to reapportioning 25km of road space for active travel in Glasgow city centre, including through suspending some on-street parking, widening pavement access, and installing more ‘pop up’ cycle lanes on key routes. Numerous projects were rolled out during the summer, with the council to receive an additional £4m from the ‘Spaces for People’ fund, and have since committed to setting up car-free zones outside a number of schools, as well as further reapportioning of road space for active travel modes.

A moment to pause and reflect on where we are

Much of this has been promising and a with number of new active travel projects that could not have been envisaged just months before. Nonetheless, there remain significant issues and concerns about the long-term sustainability of some of the work. Projects have generally been labelled as ‘temporary’, are they only for the time being, to removed in a few months? Framing them this way (rather than perhaps’ ‘trial’) continues to cede primacy to motorised vehicles. The use of somewhat flimsy objects (such as traffic cones and plastic barriers) has seen recurring issues of newly installed infrastructure either quickly degrading, or simply being removed/shifted by motorised traffic and businesses that assumes an entitlement to the road space for car use.

The sudden implementation of these measures, with limited consultation, has raised some conflicts at a local level issues which are being played out across the UK, while evidence from Berlin shows that ‘pop up’ infrastructure has also coincided with increased cycling fatalities. What design standards are being followed in the implementation of these changes (do the developments meet best practice)? How will new infrastructure be maintained, and what resources are being apportioned to deal with issues such as illegal car parking in pop up cycle lanes (already a recurring issue with existing cycling infrastructure in Glasgow), to the cleaning and clearing of debris?

I think back to times I have spent cycling in Belgium and the Netherlands, including to Ghent in February, where high quality segregated active travel infrastructure is permanently designed into town centres and neighbourhoods. Beyond the built infrastructure, these ways of moving have become culturally embedded- part of the fundamental fabric of places, people can move both locally, and further afield, by forms of mobility that are healthy, efficient, accessible, sustainable and of low cost. Glasgow city council have taken positive steps in recent months but until we as a society fundamentally and permanently redesign, reapportion and manage road and public space for active travel over motorised forms, then achieving the myriad benefits remains elusive.

And what for the future?…

During the re-arranged COP26 climate change conference in 2021 global attention will be focused on Glasgow. What type of city will we have then, and what is the longer-term future for mobility in the city? Will it be one in which people can move safely and easily using active travel means, or will we continue ‘down the road’ of the car-centric, congested, noisy, polluted city that has come to pass from decades of car primacy in transport planning?

On September 1, First Minister announced an increase in funding for active travel in Scotland as part of the Programme for Government for 2020-2021- £500 million over 5 years- forlocal authorities and others to bid in for funding of large scale, transformational active travel infrastructure projects, reallocating road space in favour of walking, cycling and wheeling over cars”. Will Glasgow (and other local authorities in Scotland and UK) act on this opportunity to reverse the car primacy that has come to define the places where we live and prioritise people over private vehicles?

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