Let’s celebrate the city’s cleaner air and shape the streets in which we live

Daniel Glaser is enjoying the changes in the streets seen during lockdown.

Daniel Glaser is enjoying the changes in the streets seen during lockdown. - Credit: Archant

Imagine yourself in summer 2021. Things are still different from how they were before Covid-19 and some of those changes make you happy.

Perhaps it’s your connections with your neighbours and local shops. If you have work outside the home maybe you’re commuting less (now everyone can be in the Zoom. For me I’m hoping that our family cycle rides will be maintained.

The first weeks of lockdown were strange and in some ways terrifying. As a neuroscientist who is interested in eye movements it’s been fascinating trying to read people’s intentions with the bottom half of their faces covered.

But for my eight-year-old, this spring was the first time she had cycled around on the streets. And since then, even as the traffic has begun to return, we’ve cycled to Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s and picnicked in the parks.

We visited one of my 11-year-old’s friends in Docklands by bicycle. I still remember my 15-year-old’s smile when she realised that you can get to places all across the city under your own steam. And I was delighted when my mother, who’s in a very vulnerable group, cycled up the hill to sing me happy birthday outside our front window as part of her daily exercise.

How do we hold onto the good things? We use AI. Not artificial intelligence but ‘appreciative inquiry’. This approach, developed in the 1980s, encourages us to celebrate what we like rather than focus on problems to be solved. As the original authors said “We can’t ignore problems - we just need to approach them from the other side.”

Normally when new road schemes are designed there is an extensive consultation during which all possible objections are considered on paper. At Camden Cycling Campaign we support this democratic process and much of our effort and expertise focuses on this. But the emergency of Covid-19 has forced national and local government to act differently. With public transport challenged by virus transmission, immediate steps are required to avoid a massive shift to car use. As a result TfL and the boroughs have brought forward the construction of schemes to improve walking and cycling. We have the unique opportunity to test by building. But if these changes are to be made permanent and extended we need to pay attention now to what we like and tell people about it.

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It’s well known that outrage is a powerful force. The algorithms that build our Twitter feeds and the choices that drive the letters page focus on controversy, dissent and conflict. And as a neuroscientist I know that our perception systems zoom in on exceptions. Driven by biology, my attention is drawn to extreme speeding or to whichever vehicle is disregarding traffic lights.

But experience from places which change the streets, like Waltham Forest, shows huge numbers of people, from business owners to residents, love the new sense of space. Behaviour does change, some traffic does evaporate and the young and vulnerable are able to enjoy Living Streets. We are seeing those changes all around now but we need to record our impressions and evidence of the positive effects of these new facts on the ground.

Early in 2021 many of the temporary schemes may be made permanent.

Through 2020 let’s gather stories to celebrate not just the numbers but also the diversity of people on bicycles.

Let’s write to our councillors and tell our friends about our enjoyment of the clearer air that traffic reduction brings to neighbourhood streets. Let’s share the new active journeys that we are building into our daily routines.

Nobody knows what the next phase of the virus will be like. But we all have an opportunity to help shape the streets where it happens.