blog | 12.05.2020 | Bruce Whyte

Active travel during a pandemic

At the time of writing this blog, very sadly, UK deaths from Covid-19 have exceeded 30,000 and are close to 3,000 in Scotland. Public health work to mitigate the worst impacts of the virus and the lockdown has begun and examining the impacts on health behaviours, sustainable travel and air quality are all areas of interest.

Covid-19 related work and travel restrictions had immediate effects. Our streets emptied of cars, while our parks filled with joggers, cyclists and walkers and air pollution in our cities started to clear. There is some evidence that more people are cycling and we can see a steady stream of new joggers and purposeful walkers flow along our pavements. Working from home and virtual meetings – via ZOOM, Skype, Teams, WEBEX, etc - for work and for socialising have become the norm.

Many of these changes, if they persist beyond the lockdown period, will be beneficial for individual and global health by helping to reduce the need to travel and, in turn, lowering climate emissions and air pollution. But which of these new trends will represent the ‘new norm’ and which will be ephemeral? Will our streets start to fill up again with cars as soon as lockdown restrictions are eased? Will people continue to frequent their local parks? Will they continue to jog, walk and cycle for work and leisure?

Working collaboratively to monitor activity

The Urban Big Data Centre, Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health have been working in collaboration to understand what is happening. We have been analysing counts of traffic, pedestrians and cyclists recorded at sites across Glasgow. A separate UBDC blog describes the pioneering use of still images from CCTV to count pedestrians in Glasgow. In this piece, I will focus on our analysis of cycling and pedestrian counts provided by Glasgow City Council.

We have access to counter data from twelve monitoring sites, four of which are pedestrian counters and eight of which are cycle counters. We have daily counts from these sites from 1st January 2020 and hourly data from 9th April onwards. (The main lockdown began on 23rd March.)

What cycling and pedestrian counts tell us about active travel during lockdown

Illustrative map of selected cycle and pedestrian monitoring sites in Glasgow. These are the Clyde Tunnel, Bell's Bridge, Tradeston Footbridge, Garscube Road, George Street, Victoria Bridge and Polmadie Bridge

Some interesting trends are starting to emerge:

  • There was a notable reduction in pedestrians at Tradeston Bridge and at Bell’s Bridge as the Covid-19 restrictions came in, while pedestrian numbers through the Clyde Tunnel and on the Polmadie Bridge (near Glasgow Green) were relatively unaffected by the lockdown; pedestrian counts at both have risen modestly since lockdown.
Graph showing Daily pedestrain counts for Clyde Tunnel Northbound, Bells Bridge, Polmadie Bridge and Tradeston Bridge from 2nd March 2020 to 30th April 2020 (Source: Glasgow City Council. Graph shows •	There was a notable reduction in pedestrians at Tradeston Bridge and at Bell’s Bridge as the Covid-19 restrictions came in, while pedestrian numbers through the Clyde Tunnel and on the Polmadie Bridge (near Glasgow Green) were relatively unaffected by the lockdown; pedestrian counts at both have risen modestly since lockdown.
  • Daily cycle counts at Garscube Rd, George St and Victoria Bridge reduced at all these sites as lockdown restrictions came in, but have risen again since then in part due to good weather.
Graph showing daily cyclist counts at Garscube Road, George Street and Victoria Bridge from 2nd March 2020 to 30th April 2020 (Source: Glasgow City Council). Graph shows that the	daily cycle counts at Garscube Rd, George St and Victoria Bridge were reduced at all these sites as lockdown restrictions came in, but have risen again since then in part due to good weather.
  • The lockdown restrictions seem to have had a relatively modest, short-term effect on cyclist counts at Bell's Bridge and Tradeston Bridge. Cyclist counts at both sites rose during April until 25th April in line with improving drier, warmer weather.
  • Cycle counts through the Clyde Tunnel appear to have been unaffected by the lockdown. There has been a steady increase in cyclist volumes through the tunnel during April and unlike other sites, peak cycle counts are during the week.
  • Pedestrian and cyclist counts peak over the weekends at most monitoring sites, including a longer peak over the Easter weekend (10th – 13th April).
  • Evidence of commuting patterns is coming through. There are peaks in the late afternoon at most sites during the week and you can also see early morning peaks (6-8am) e.g. in the Clyde Tunnel on all days of the week, possibly reflecting shift patterns at the hospital.
Graph showing cyclists using the Clyde Tunnel (hourly counts) from Friday 24th April 2020 to Thursday 30th April 2020 (Source: Glasgow City Council). This graph shows evidence of commuting patterns.  There are peaks in the late afternoon at most sites during the week and you can also see early morning peaks (6-8am) e.g. in the Clyde Tunnel on all days of the week, possibly reflecting shift patterns at the hospital.
  • The data suggest that we are seeing a combination of more leisure cycling and walking during the day and particularly at weekends, overlayed on a depressed, but still perceptible, level of commuting. As restrictions are eased these patterns should become clearer.
  • The impact of weather is very apparent. Warmer, sunnier weather brings people out and boosts the walking and cycling counts, whereas colder and wetter weather has the opposite effect.

We plan to model the impact of weather on these trends as well as comparing these figures to the same period in 2019 when data become available.

Using this data to inform future transport systems

The original purpose of this programme of monitoring was to assess the impact of the city’s Avenues programme on reducing road space for cars and encouraging walking and cycling, and we will return our focus to this when social movement restrictions ease. In the meantime, our current monitoring is helping us to observe how people are adapting to the lockdown restrictions, and to see when and where people are out and about walking and cycling. As restrictions are relaxed we will want to assess the impact on walking, cycling and other modes of travel.

We hope to soon have access to data from the full set of citywide GCC cycle and pedestrian monitoring sites and to expand our counts of pedestrians via CCTV still images. These data will provide a fuller picture of walking and cycling patterns across the city pre- and post- lockdown and could help in assessing the proposed new temporary infrastructure measures under discussion, such as widened pavements and new segregated cycle lanes. In the slightly longer term, expanded cycle and pedestrian monitoring can help guide proposals for new infrastructure in the city including the liveable neighbourhoods plans being developed by Glasgow City Council.

In addition, taking a national perspective, the monitors in Glasgow, alongside those in other parts of Scotland (including the Cycling Scotland network), offer the potential to provide much more comprehensive information on cycling and walking levels across the country.

Further afield, cities across the world are starting to consider how they can change their transport systems to decrease road traffic, congestion and air pollution. The reduction of air pollution that is a by-product of the lockdown has spurred on this change. Milan, one of the most polluted cities in Europe, is proposing to reallocate street space from cars to cycling and walking, while the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has already announced her dream of a 15-minute city: a city of neighbourhoods where you can find everything you need within 15 minutes of home. Or, put another way, every citizen can reach their work, home, and any amenity within a 15-minute bike ride.

Glasgow has made its commitments to reduce climate emissions and improve air quality and the Coronavirus lockdown offers an opportunity to accelerate the changes needed to create a more liveable, healthier city. Good active travel monitoring data will be vital to guide and monitor this shift.

Project Team

Glasgow Centre for Population Health: Bruce Whyte (author of this blog)

UBDC: Dr Mark Livingston; Dr David McArthur; Dr Andrew McHugh; Luis Serra

Glasgow City Council: Kimberley Hose; Keith Scott; Kalim Uddin

Bruce Whyte

Bruce Whyte is Public Health Programme Manager at Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH). He co-leads the Centre’s ‘Observatory Function’ and is responsible for developing and managing a comprehensive public health information programme. His main areas of work include: managing and developing the Understanding Glasgow website and leading a programme of research on active and sustainable travel. 

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