Space for distancing - the response

I wrote in May asking the council to introduce Space for distancing in line with the government guidance.

I received a response from the leader of the council, Cllr Abi Brown, which was impressive in promptness (the response came the next day), but deeply unimpressive in content and tone.

The need to ensure the safety of the city’s residents has of course never been more important and it was therefore interesting to read the measures adopted by some major cities around the world in terms of enabling social distancing to be observed when people are out and about.
As well as working with the voluntary sector and other partners to directly support the most vulnerable residents, as a Highway Authority we have also been ensuring that our roads remain safe. Our key focus is on reinforcing the government’s message that people should only be travelling when essential to do so. We are providing social distance reminders on electronic signs on our roads, at our bus station and in our parks, which remain open. Our partners Staffordshire Police are responding to any social distancing concerns that occur on our pavements and elsewhere.

The police don’t have any powers to enforce social distancing on pavements, and even if they did, the issue I was raising was that all too often the pavements don’t actually have enough space to enable this. This is just passing the buck.

In terms of the opportunities for reallocating road space for pedestrians, whilst traffic levels are clearly much reduced, I would dispute whether there is substantial “unused road space” as you suggest. Many of our roads are narrow and could not provide for any extended footway. Many other roads have cycle lanes or residential parking and are being utilised far more regularly now than usual, due to more people being at home and more people cycling as part of their daily exercise or to commute to essential work. Thus, the opportunities to reduce road width or close roads appear to be very limited.

I provided a short list of examples where there is enough space, though. I wasn’t asking for every street. There are no actual statutory cycle lanes in the city, only a handful of discretionary “murder strip” lanes.

As you mention, unfortunately there have been some examples of speed limits being broken more regularly, slightly reducing the benefits of lower traffic levels. Thus, we would be wary of encouraging pedestrians to use the carriageway even with cones or planters being used as a means of segregation, and of suspending push button crossings, which are vital for those who are visually and hearing impaired.

Narrowing a carriageway with segregation is a way of reducing speeding. PDF from TRL. I never mentioned suspending push button crossings; I assume this means someone else has written with similar suggestions including this.

Closing residential streets to traffic would be extremely contentious and in our view unlikely to be supported by the local community. Such measures would require engagement and even consultation with the local community, which itself under the current restrictions would not really be feasible.

I have received a consultation document about a nearby road widening scheme during the current restrictions, and my wife has received one about gated alleyways. I specifically suggested using experimental orders (where the consultation starts once the works go in) or temporary orders which require just a seven-day notice period before the works are installed. It seems highly presumptuous to say “we’d have to ask people, and we don’t think they’d like it, so we won’t bother asking them”, and even if there is some resistance at first, similar schemes such as those in Waltham Forest have generally proved popular once the residents have got used to the reduced traffic levels.

What is agreed is that the current situation has given us a glimpse of life with lower traffic levels and with residents undertaking far more walking and cycling trips than previously, as part of their daily exercise or commute, and this is something we are keen to capture as part of the ‘new normal’.
With that in mind, we will be promoting our walking and cycling network as we hopefully near towards some relaxation of the current ‘lockdown’ rules, tapping into the benefits that hopefully many people have seen from getting daily exercise. We will also be looking to continue to look at opportunities to extend and improve our walking and cycling network, and in the very near future start construction on such schemes already in our programme for delivery.

This is the only action promised – to promote the existing poor facilities, and continue with planned work she didn’t provide any details or examples of.

I very much appreciate you sending me your suggestions, the principles behind which we would agree, in terms of making best use of this time to promote and increase walking and cycling as a healthy and sustainable means of transport.

Ultimately, this response reads to me very much like an excuse for inaction, rather than any agreement to do the work.

Fortunately, the government’s view was closer to mine and when money was made available to councils, it was on the condition that they implement the exact measures I was asking for. After some dithering, Cllr Brown is now promising to take action. No specific plans have been published as far as I can tell, though – despite the deadline for applying for the funds having passed.