Should we have anti-pandemic local transport?

Pain delivers progress.”
Abhijit Naskar

I was recently asked for my views on a sustainable transport policy for Hereford.

Having said “I will write something for you”, I spent a day doing endless mental “what-ifs” and each time concluded that the future environmental sustainability of Hereford will be dependent on reducing highway traffic volumes.  Not just in Hereford but throughout the county.  And everywhere else.

How to do it?

It used to be said that boosting public transport provision would reduce car use.  But we failed to grasp that this has to be complemented by reductions in road capacities.  Otherwise, any capacity created, by shifting some car journeys to public transport, will be taken up by other car journeys, sometimes in new patterns of travel. 

Worse still, in Herefordshire, creating spare road space in Hereford will make the north-south route through the city (A49) more attractive for long-distance traffic, as an alternative to slower motorway travel.

But, what if Covid-19 leads to reductions in (1) the size of the economy, (2) prosperity (3) population, and (4) consequent reductions in travel and traffic congestion? 

The temptation will then be to continue accommodating, and implicitly planning for, traffic growth. Moreover, long-established conventional growth-based benefit/cost analysis will seem to ‘prove’ this should be the way forward…   

But, we must not assume that the past is our best guide to the future.  We should ignore what conventional economic analysis tells us. The future will be quite different.

We should think “outside the box”.  We must use our imagination.  We must think about what would be sustainable in a future in which pandemics will be part of a new norm. This must now be brought into our thinking, about the future of our urban and rural areas.

If we assume that the immediate need is to prepare for future pandemics then, for the time being, we must put to one side our thinking about environmental sustainability.

But maybe there is no need for this?  Minimising the threat of pandemics and seeking environmental sustainability – both require the suppression of travel. Highway and public transport systems designed to enable travel to city centres and supermarkets are not a good idea.  They increase our chance of spreading and getting covid-19.

I can imagine a land-use/transport strategy that would replace the present city-centre oriented economy and associated radial highway and public transport systems.   

This reminds me of a piece I wrote here in 2018, about clusters. Clusters of home-based local economies would reduce the need to travel. They would be based on local shopping centres, villages and self-defined communities.  With mini-bus services on 20mph lanes for local travel and deliveries.  And separate paths for cycles and pedestrians. 

And, if there are none, new village shops, cafes and pubs on plots which are legally protected from conversion to housing. If only this had been seen to be essential when development control laws were introduced in 1947. So many village shops and pubs would have been saved from conversion into houses.

Cluster boundaries could come about as happenstances, according to the views of local people – a kind of informal planning processes.  Sometimes overlapping or within each other.  Whatever suits the locality. Prompted by awareness of the idea and discussion on social media and local email newsgroups.

Road capacities between the clusters would be limited, with speed limits to discourage car travel.

Within each of the clusters, areas would become established where all kinds of businesses would develop.  Providing local employment and related services, such as meeting rooms and cafés for home-workers.

The kinds of businesses in each cluster would be a result of happenstance development.  In the way that the village of Studley (referred to in my previous piece) happened to become preoccupied with making needles in the 19th and 20th centuries.  An evolutionary process taking generations of family growth.

Aiming to minimise car use within the clusters and discretionary travel outside. To limit the spread of pandemics.  

A kind of sustainability more important than the environmental kind. Quickly replacing the old ways with a new norm.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Corrado Poli says

    I suggest you to take a look at my book “Corrado Poli. Mobility and Environment. Humanists vs. Engineers in Urban Policy and Professional Education. Springer. New York-London. 2011” in which I elaborate along the lines you propose

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