In my role as Active Nation Commissioner for Scotland, I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half travelling the country trying to understand why health, transport and town planning can’t work together to create a healthier, happier, fairer and more environmentally sustainable Scotland. Up until recently, encouraging these different strands in our statutory sector to speak to each other and to write joined-up policies that would deliver such a Scotland has been challenging but Covid-19 has changed all of this.
Over the last few months, we’ve all been asked to stay local, to shop locally, to exercise locally, to check on our neighbours and to not prioritise our individual wants and needs over the collective needs of our society. After the initial shock and subsequent adjustment period of having to stay within a five-mile radius of my home, I’ve realised that I used to move around too much.
Lately, when I’ve needed to go somewhere (to the shops, or out for a run or a ride), I’ve really enjoyed moving through our cleaner, quieter streets and, as if in celebration, spring has sprung in the most vital, almost absurd way with cacophonies of birdsong and unparalleled air quality.
But this crisis has disproportionally affected those of us who already have less; single parents, young people, our homeless community. It’s been harder for many of us to simply exist, let alone remember to wash our hands.
The transport resources each of us have (or don’t have) at our disposal is a social justice issue. More than one third of households in Scotland don’t have access to a car and are reliant on walking, cycling, wheeling and public transport to get around. The injustice of one third of the population breathing the emissions and dodging the traffic generated by the remaining two thirds, has been levelled during this crisis because we have indiscriminately been asked to move around less but with restrictions beginning to lift, we all have some decisions to make.
The Scottish Government’s emphasis on incentivising walking, cycling and wheeling by facilitating local authorities’ ambitions to widen pavements and create segregated cycling networks will play a key part in the green recovery of our economy.
Schemes already being delivered across the country will help people pay for the cost of repairing bikes, teach them to ride and help more people walk, cycle or wheel those short every day journeys. Business will be encouraged to stagger start times for staff returning to work and traders on our high streets will be supported to adopt sustainable delivery methods for the necessary transportation of goods around our built-up areas.
But the truth remains that most of us will have an individual choice to make about how we behave when travel restrictions begin to ease. Many of us have realised that we don’t need to travel as much as we might have first thought. Most of us have experienced first-hand the positive effects that cycling or walking in our local, traffic-free communities can have on our physical and emotional health and have been surprised at how possible it is to cover reasonable distances by foot or wheel.
We’ve all been forced to consider just how linked together we all are in terms of the transmission of this virus but we’ve also felt linked together in the caring for, and being cared for, by others. Now is the time to try healthier, fairer ways to get around in order to create the society we all want to be part of.
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