UK road travel falls to 1955 levels as Covid-19 lockdown takes hold

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The coronavirus outbreak has brought Britain to a near standstill, with road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, to levels not seen since 1955.

All forms of travel have plunged in urban areas. Walking, cycling and car and van journeys are all down by about three-quarters, while bus numbers have fallen by 60%. The number of large lorries has declined by just 40% as essential supplies continue to be transported.

However, national data from Monday and Tuesday, the two most recent days available, shows a slight upward trend since the previous week, with motor traffic down only 63%, equivalent to 1962. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called the trend concerning. “Please follow medical and scientific advice to stay home and save lives,” he said.

The empty streets have already resulted in big drops in air pollution, which is likely to reduce early deaths from lung and heart conditions. Traffic deaths and injuries are near certain to have fallen, but data is not yet available. Noise pollution, which is also known to have adverse affects on human health, is down, and the quieter streets have encouraged wildlife to venture into some towns.

updated traffic graphic

Cabinet Office data shows motor traffic dropped by 73% on 29 March compared with pre-outbreak levels. Guardian analysis shows the number of road miles travelled has not been this low since 1955, when far fewer people owned cars and there were no motorways. The government data also shows rail travel down 90%, and tube and bus journeys in London down by 94% and 83% respectively.

Some experts suggest that people who have learned how to work effectively from home may continue to do so for a day or two a week after the Covid-19 crisis is over. This could help tackle the climate emergency, because the transport sector is the biggest emitter and the only one to have increased its emissions in recent years. Others, however, say emissions could rise again if the coronavirus lockdown causes lasting financial damage to public transport services.

Detailed data from Vivacity, a video analysis company, shows that pedestrian, bicycle and car journeys in urban areas started falling a few days after the government announced it was moving from the contain to the delay phase of its pandemic response on 12 March. Bus, van and large HGV trips started falling later, after Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown on 23 March.

The data shows large HGV traffic actually rose significantly in the week before the lockdown. “We interpret that as, because people were suddenly panic buying, they needed to do many more deliveries to shops across the country,” Vivacity’s CEO, Mark Nicholson, said.

Traffic fall after coronavirus outbreak

Cyclist numbers fell more slowly than those for pedestrians, who often arrive in city centres on public transport. This may be because some people switched to cycling, either to avoid crowded buses and trains or because of sunny weather.

Nicholson said people may continue to work from home at least some of the time in future. “If that manages to decrease traffic on the roads then that would be a great outcome from an environmental perspective,” he said.

Vivacity’s data comes from its network of hundreds of cameras in urban areas across England, including Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Oxford, Cambridge, Peterborough, Bournemouth and on the M32. Most cameras are on busy streets, so do not monitor traffic in residential areas.

The company uses AI software installed in the cameras to analyse video footage of traffic, generating data that helps local authorities to plan traffic management. No images of faces are stored and numberplate data is erased every 24 hours.

Claire Haigh, the CEO of Greener Journeys, said the big fall in revenue for public transport services might damage its viability in the longer term, with bus and coach travel already in decline before the virus struck as people shop more online.

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“Any expected fall in transport emissions this year as a result of the lockdown will be short-lived if it does lasting damage to public transport systems,” she said. “A double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road.” The government announced GBP167m in new funding on Friday to support bus services over the next 12 weeks. “It’s absolutely vital we do all we can to keep the sector running,” Shapps said.

Highways England, which operates the country’s motorways and A-roads, said traffic on its network had fallen by about half since the Covid-19 crisis began. The AA, which is providing free cover to NHS workers, said recovery callouts had fallen by a third, though the number of flat batteries had risen as cars sat idle.

Data on deaths and serious injuries from road traffic incidents is only available from 2018, during which an average of 34 people died each week and 490 suffered serious injuries.

Life in 1955

At 80 years old, Winston Churchill was in his final year as prime minister, and just over five million cars and vans were registered in 1955, compared with 36m in 2019. Many of the marques on the road then have since been lost, from Allard and Alvis to Riley and Singer.

The year was not without travel problems. A snow storm in February blocked many roads and train tracks and a long rail strike led to the declaration of a state of emergency in May.

In politics, Anthony Eden replaced Churchill, who retired, and the long-standing Labour leader, Clement Attlee, was replaced by Hugh Gaitskell. Evelyn Sharp became the first female permanent secretary in the civil service, but women were still barred from the House of Lords.

Child benefit payments had been in place for 10 years, but the contraceptive pill did not become available on the NHS until 1961 and the Equal Pay Act was still 15 years away.

Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby were named as Soviet spies, and Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in the UK.

Chelsea won football’s First Division for the first time, and Newcastle United took the FA Cup for the sixth time, a trophy they have not won since.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett had its English-language premiere and JRR Tolkien‘s final Lord of the Rings book, The Return of the King, was published.

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