Large areas of London are to be closed to cars and vans to allow people to walk and cycle safely as the coronavirus lockdown is eased, Sadiq Khan has announced.
In one of the biggest car-free initiatives of any city in the world, the capital’s mayor announced on Friday that main streets between between London Bridge and Shoreditch, Euston and Waterloo, and Old Street and Holborn, will be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists.
Officials said they were working with boroughs to implement similar restrictions on the minor roads they manage within the area. Cars and lorries may also be banned from Waterloo Bridge and London Bridge.
Experts say it is crucial to encourage walking and cycling as people return to work because physical distancing is impossible on crowded transport and a surge in car use would cause gridlock and an increase in air pollution.
Khan said Covid-19 posed “the biggest challenge to London’s public transport network in Transport for London’s history”.
He added: “It will take a monumental effort from all Londoners to maintain safe social distancing on public transport as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased.
“That means we have to keep the number of people using public transport as low as possible. And we can’t see journeys formerly taken on public transport replaced with car usage because our roads would immediately become unusably blocked and toxic air pollution would soar.”
Work on the road closures will begin immediately and officials say it should be completed within six weeks.
As part of the plans to limit car use, Khan has also reintroduced the congestion charge, which will go up from £11.50 to £15, and Ultra Low Emission Zone and Low Emission Zone. To support NHS staff, the congestion charge reimbursement scheme is being extended and will also be open to care home workers.
Transport for London is also to temporarily stop free travel for children and charge over-60s to travel at peak times as well as increase fares as part of a deal to secure a £1.6bn bailout from the government.
Angus Satow from Labour for a Green New Deal warned this would have a big impact on some of London’s most vulnerable residents.
“It’s great to see parts of London going car-free. But the Tories are forcing a TfL bailout which hikes fares, removes travel for under 18s and reduces the rights of disabled and elderly people … The demand should be for full public funding of TfL and lowering or even the abolition of fares.”
Khan warned people the changes would be disruptive. “If we want to make transport in London safe, and keep London globally competitive, then we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people.
“By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air, which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another. I urge all boroughs to work with us to make this possible.”
He said he “fully appreciated” the difficulties the move may cause for some Londoners. “It will mean a fundamental reimagining how we live our lives in this city. And this transformation will not be smooth. But I promise to be as clear and upfront with Londoners as possible about what we are doing, why and exactly what we need from you in order to keep us safe.”
Many cities have already announced measures to improve walking and cycling and support a low-carbon, sustainable recovery from the coronavirus crisis.
Milan has introduced one of Europe’s most ambitious cycling and walking schemes, with 22 miles of streets to be transformed over the summer. In Paris, the mayor has allocated €300m for a network of cycle lanes, many of which will follow existing metro lines, to offer an alternative to public transport.
In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, a 75-mile network of streets usually turned over to bicycles one day a week will now be traffic-free all week, and a further 47 miles of bike lanes are being opened to reduce crowding on public transport and improve air quality.
In the UK, the Scottish government has announced £10m to create pop-up walking and cycling routes, and Manchester has unveiled plans to pedestrianise part of Deansgate in the city centre.
But David Miller, from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership group, which has been coordinating much of the response, said Khan’s plans stood out.
“Congratulations to … Khan for showing the world what is possible when we reimagine our cities for the benefit and health of everyone,” he said.
“These measures announced in London today, including major car-free zones, will clean the air that Londoners breathe, improve public health both during the Covid-19 pandemic and long into the future, while also helping to avert the climate crisis. This is the future we want.”
Doug Parr, from Greenpeace, welcomed what he said was an “ambitious project”.
“Not only will transforming our streets in a way that prioritises pedestrians and cyclists, and makes it safer for people to move about as lockdown restrictions are eased, but by permanently restricting car use we can keep toxic pollution from filling our air once again,” he said.
Theo Highland from Sustrans said the initiative was “a potential game-changer” in efforts to encourage walking and cycling. He called on boroughs across the capital to follow suit. “All boroughs must now make the changes our streets need to give Londoners space to move around safely and build our spirited city’s resilience as we begin to bounce back from this pandemic.”
Air pollution campaigners also welcomed the initiative. Jemima Hartshorn, founder of Mums for Lungs, said she was delighted. “We need pollution levels to stay reduced because pre-corona levels, caused primarily by traffic, stunt lung growth and are linked to many illnesses, from cancer to diabetes.”