These are unprecedented times.  With lockdown extended for another three weeks, it’s becoming clear that even when it lifts we won’t be returning to anything like normal life. With no vaccine, limited testing, and little information about immunity, physical distancing measures will have to be maintained for months if not longer. 

Children cycling on empty streets
Children cycling on empty roads in Edinburgh – photo Ewen Maclean

As we’ve seen during the last month, empty roads have seen Scots out walking – and especially cycling – like never before, and not just in the big cities but in places like Dunfermline, Livingston and Dumfries. Unfortunately, it’s not just cyclists who’ve taken advantage of the quieter roads, drivers have been increasingly putting their foot down with speeding on the rise not just on motorways but on residential roads. The need to keep two metres apart has also made it clear that many of our pavements are not fit for purpose for anyone, let alone people with a visual impairment or wheelchair users. All the compromises we’ve grown used to over the years – shared-use paths, pinch points, narrow cycle lanes, pedestrian barriers and constricted pavements – are now more than just a traffic hazard, they’re an infection hazard too.

narrow pavements
For too long we’ve been giving space to traffic and squeezing pedestrians into the margins. Photo Chris Russell

This is only going to get worse as the lockdown starts to ease. Our towns and cities face gridlock if people don’t wish to use public transport but no longer feel safe cycling once the traffic returns. As more shops open, the need to queue outside will become problematic on increasingly busy pavements. And families who have tasted the freedom of cycling around their local neighbourhood will face danger once rat-runners return. It also means that pollution will  soar just as some of the most vulnerable people are fighting for every breath. The need to repurpose our streets to give people space to safely get around has never been clearer.

This is why we’re calling on the Scottish Government to urgently set up a #SpaceForDistancing scheme, modelled on New Zealand’s plans []. 

Four types of measures will be needed:

  • Temporary widening of pavements to allow people to pass each other safely on foot and queue outside shops if they need to (two metres is much wider than you think).
  • Temporary segregated cycleways along key commuting routes to enable key workers and others to cycle where possible.
  • Temporary modal filters, closing off vehicular access to residential streets except to emergency services and residents, to discourage speeding, prevent rat-running and allow families to continue to exercise safely outside.
  • Lower speed limits on key rural roads to create cycle-friendly routes into towns and villages.

Local authorities already have some powers to take temporary steps to reallocate road space and close roads under experimental orders, as this SPICE briefing has made clear. However, even temporary measures will cost money, and our councils are in the middle of dealing with an unprecedented crisis and may lack staff and capacity to set these schemes up of their own initiative.  

We therefore urge the Scottish Government to put in place a Scotland-wide scheme to make Space for Distancing a reality across the country. There will need to be a central fund for local authorities to draw on, with no need for match funding, as well as resources, guidance and, if necessary, emergency strengthened legal powers to help them put these schemes in place.

We’ve seen on Twitter that the Transport Secretary is exploring these issues already with local authorities, which we welcome. But there is no time to waste. We need to be putting these measures in place now, while traffic is light and there is space to do so. If we wait until we’re gridlocked, and all those families have been frightened back into their cars, it will be too late. 

You can help. Let the Scottish government and your MSPs know that you would support a scheme like this and that you want Space for Distancing, to allow yourself and your loved ones to get around safely and sustainably as the lockdown eases. And let your local authority know that you’re expecting it to play its part. We’ve got some plans in train to make this easier so watch this space. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved devastating for many, and life-changing for almost all of us. We need these measures now to reduce the risk to the general population post-lockdown.  However, as other cities and countries around the world have recognised, such measures can also serve as a bridge – from the car-centric, unhealthy urban design of the present to more sustainable, livable towns and cities of the future.

#SpaceForDistancing – an urgent call