Back to work: How businesses can promote sustainable and socially-distanced commutes

As people slowly return to work following the government’s announcement on Sunday, employers can encourage staff to embrace sustainable routes into work by launching cycle-to-work schemes, installing on-site facilities such as bike storage and showers, while working with local authorities to encourage better local walking and cycling infrastrucutre.

Business leaders could play a significant role in helping to tackle an expected uptick in road congestion and air pollution as commuters attempt to return to work while following explicit government advice to avoid public transport wherever possible.

In modest changes to the lockdown regime announced yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that construction and manufacturing workers as well as other groups unable to work remotely should return to work from this week. But with the government still fearful of any uptick in the rate of coronavirus transmission, Johnson added that where possible workers should commute by car, foot, or bike in order to maintain social distancing measures critical to fighting spread of the coronavirus.

“We want it to be safe for you to get to work. So, you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited,” Johnson said in pre-recorded address to the nation.

But an embrace of the car as the primary method of socially-distanced transportation for work or to travel to exercise destinations comes comes with its own host of environmental and health considerations. A sharp rise in people shunning public transport in favour of driving to work risks increasing carbon emissions and worsening air pollution – a factor that early research suggests may aggravate the coronavirus death rate – as well as increasing levels of congestion and traffic accident risks, especially as roads will also cater to a surge in the number of cyclists. The AA’s head of road policy Jack Cousens confirmed to BusinessGreen today that the group expects an increase in car, motorcycle, and bicycle usage as workers avoid public transport – a spike he said would prompt more traffic jams.

What is more, environmental and sustainable transport groups contend that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s endorsement of driving on Sunday was somewhat at odds with a historic £2bn emergency fund dedicated to short-term cycling and walking measures and infrastructure unveiled by the Secretary of Transport the day before. Johnson may have stressed that people should cycle and walk if possible, but for many commuters active transport is not yet a viable option.

Rachel White, head of policy at walking and cycling charity Sustrans, told BusinessGreen that the government’s encouragement of motoring to work and other destinations was a “concern” that was “out of kilter with the briefing the day before from the Secretary of State”.

A new £250m “emergency active travel fund” – unveiled by the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in the government’s Saturday coronavirus briefing – is set to deliver pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements, safer junctions and cycle and bus-only corridors in England “within weeks”. The Department for Transport also said that it had fast-tracked statutory guidance that would allow councils to reallocate road space for cyclists and pedestrians, and announced that it had brought forward e-scooter trials planned for 2021 to next month in order to encourage a broader range of greener alternatives to public transport. The proposed investment, described as the largest ever boost for cycling and pedestrians, is the first stage of a £2bn investment commitment to boost active travel across the UK.

“The government is beginning to talk about cycling and walking in the same way that they talk about roads,” enthused White. “Roads often gets a huge funding settlement over five-year period and cycling and walking haven’t seen that long-term funding certainty for a long time.” She commended Shapps for the “ackowledgement that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver lasting transformative change in the way we make short journeys in our towns and cities”.

Meanwhile, the government’s recently-unveiled five-year £27bn road funding programme is facing a legal challenge amid warnings that the scheme will undermine government commitments to tackling air pollution and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Roz Bulleid, interim policy director of Green Alliance, also pointed to the disconnect between the government’s two big bank holiday weekend announcements. “The government’s recent funding pledge indicates that it wants the public to embrace active travel,” she said. “But to make sure this happens, it must be at the heart of messages from the Prime Minister and others, not an afterthought.”

The promised space for walkers and cyclists must be delivered quickly, she argued, in order to convince commuters who are currently considering making the shift to cycling. Furthermore, Bulleid warned “the government should also be careful not to stigmatise public transport at this time: Increasing car use is not a long-term solution and will worsen the health problems associated with air pollution, as well as contributing to climate change”.

It remains to be seen whether the government will continue to promote both driving and cycling in tandem or back up its new funding programme with a longer term effort to curb car use. But in the meantime, businesses can and should take an active approach in encouraging employees to embrace commuting on foot or by bicycle, green groups told BusinessGreen.

Sustrans’ White pointed to three key ways business leaders can encourage employees that can cycle to work to do so. “Provide facilities, work with local authorities – contact them to get road layouts changed – and bring in other organisations to help with behaviour change,” she advised.

Cycle to work schemes, which give employees’ discounts on cycle equipment, are a good starting point for any corporate active transport strategy, White said, as is ensuring that offices are fitted with cyclist-friendly facilities, such as showers and secure on-site cycle parking. Proactive communication with local authorities is key to ensuring that the right cycle and foot infrastructure is in place for employees, she said, adding that groups like Sustrans can encourage employee behaviour change by delivering cycling and bike maintenance workshops, she added.

“All those things together will helpfully create an environment where it’s a natural choice to cycle where possible,” White said. “Not everyone will be able to, but it’s about minimising the turn to driving and preventing in the short-term more people driving than before because they are not taking public transport.”

Meanwhile, Darren Shirley, chief executive at the Campaign for Better Transport, said that “clear communication” between employers and staff on how to manage their commutes to work would be imperative as workplaces reopen over the coming weeks.

“Large employers should engage with their local authorities and transport operators before reopening their workplaces to high numbers of employees so as to ensure that their commuting needs can be managed against the local transport capacity and circumstances,” he said. “They should request that local authorities expand footpaths and cycleways connecting to their offices and sites to make the journey into work safer.” Free bike hire and storage should also be made available, he added, and large employees should also consider contracting socially-distanced bus services.

He also warned the government’s directive for people to avoid public transport carries a risk of causing “immeasurable and permanent damage to the public transport system leaving communities disconnected, and those on lower incomes, or who don’t drive, unable to get to work or access shops and services”. As such he argued that it was vital for the government to develop “a concrete plan for the later stages of recovery on how public transport will be renewed to allow people to continue to get to work safely and sustainably and to ensure there is still a transport industry after the pandemic”.

Commenting on the weekend’s new cycling and walking funding announcement, Nicholas Boyes Smith, executive director of urban housing research institute Create Streets, provided some pointers on what a longer-term strategy might look like for central, city, and local governments looking to break what he described as the “diabolical alliance” between cars and urban design. His suggested measures ranged from more bike lanes and on-street bike storage and the rapid legalisation of e-scooters, to free bike training sessions, cheaper off-peak commuter fares, and on-street trading for shops, restaurants and cafés.

“Good consequences can flow from awful situations,” Smith wrote. “For three generations, a diabolical alliance between cars in town centres and modernist architecture –  I call it ‘traffic modernism’ – combined to make our human settlements less pleasant, less prosperous, and less popular. This can now change. And this should be the point of inflexion.”

However, as green groups today noted, such a transformation will only happen if governments, businesses, and commuters proactively pursue it. Alternatively, the coronavirus crisis risks throwing a lifeline to the polluting car-based commuter model that had appeared to be on the retreat.


May 13, 2020