Victoria Walks backs Coronovirus #SpaceForHealth

23 Apr 2020

Victoria Walks is calling on governments in Australia to follow overseas examples and urgently create safer spaces for walking and cycling during the Covid-19 pandemic, joining a push by more than 100 health and transport experts, launched today. 

Walking and cycling are among the only forms of exercise currently allowed in many parts of Australia and the closure of gyms, pools and sporting competitions has seen walkers and cyclists jostling for space in local parks, streets and on shared paths. 

Reports of uncomfortably busy recreational spaces have been in stark contrast to images of near-empty freeways and local streets, with data showing congestion on Melbourne’s road network has dropped dramatically. 

There was an 88 per cent reduction in motor vehicle trips in Melbourne in March as the pandemic forced parents and workers to stay home and leave cars idle. 

While Victoria Walks is thrilled to see so many people, particularly family groups, engaging in healthy recreation, the increased numbers and need for social distancing have highlighted problems with Australia’s existing walking and cycling infrastructure and the vastly unequal distribution of public space for motor transport. 

Dr Ben Beck, a trauma surgeon who works at the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, has led the call from over 100 health and transport experts (including Victoria Walks' Executive Officer Ben Rossiter) who have co-signed a letter sent today to all state and territory Transport Ministers urging Australia to join a growing number of cities and countries making changes. 

“We have seen numerous examples across the world of governments introducing reduced speed limits, widened footpaths, emergency cycle lanes and the closure of roads,” Dr Beck’s letter states. “As yet, we have not seen a similar response in Australia, and we need to act now.” 

While some political leaders are encouraging Victorians to stick to their neighbourhoods for exercise, the reality is many footpaths do not provide sufficient space to allow a 1.5m gap - putting vulnerable walkers in particular at risk of illness or worry about injury. 

A count of popular shared paths in Melbourne conducted by Bicycle Network earlier this month found the number of walkers and cyclists using them has increased by as much as 79 per cent.  Bicycle Network is calling for more on-road bike paths to relieve pressure on some shared paths in Melbourne. 

Victoria Walks has long advocated that shared paths are a poor cousin to separated spaces, causing both real and perceived safety issues, particularly when used by large numbers of cyclists. 

Victoria Walks' Ben Rossiter said a reduction in motor vehicle traffic presented a unique opportunity for governments to work together to provide more separated spaces for walking and cycling in Victoria and to consider closing some streets, particularly in areas with reduced access to green space. 

With social distancing measures likely to be a factor in our lives for many months to come Victoria Walks has backed the call for urgent action, inspired by a growing number of cities around the world adopting inexpensive treatments to dramatically increase space for walking and cycling. 

Victoria Walks loves the example being set by Oakland City in California, with its government acting quickly to implement a 'slow streets' program, including closing nearly 10 per cent (about 100km) of their road network to through traffic, allow walkers and cyclists more space to physically distance. 

“They've done it using only low-cost traffic cones and signs, prioritising major intersections and low-income communities to provide alternatives to crowded parks,” Mr Rossiter said. Local news reports said the message from the government to Oakland’s drivers has been ‘drive slowly on all streets and expect to encounter people walking and biking. Hospitals don't need additional patients’.” 

Dr Beck and health organisations warn that unless measures are introduced quickly to reallocate space for walking and cycling in Australia there could actually be an increase in car trips once social distancing regulations are relaxed if people continue to avoid public transport. ‘If there is not a significant shift to cycling or walking, there will likely be a commensurate increase in use of private cars, leading to increased congestion, pollution and reduced community amenity.’ 

Ben Rossiter said life could be better in a post Covid-19 world.

“Imagine a new normal where instead of streets around schools being once again choked with parked cars we instead see children who have discovered an appetite for walking and cycling feeling they can continue to do so safely as they resume their busy out-of-home schedules.” 

"The increase in neighbourhood walking and social interaction like smiling and saying hello, albeit with social distancing, is something most people would not have experienced in their lifetime," Mr Rossiter said.

"We know that when people change their behaviour over an extended period, like this, it provides an opportunity to sustain the behaviour. This should be a focus of governments - to support this to continue; the health and economic benefits of safe, friendly and active communities would be enormous."