The City of London is planning to ban cars on the busiest roads to help manage the expected return of tens of thousands of commuters to the streets of the British capital’s financial district as the coronavirus lockdown is eased.
Many of the Square Mile’s medieval thoroughfares are too narrow to maintain safe social distancing, according to the City of London Corporation, the local authority for the Square Mile.
It has drawn up proposals for 12- or 24-hour closures for cars on its main artery routes to widen pavements for walking, create bike lanes and allow safe queueing for shops and cafés.
The Corporation expects many workers to begin returning to offices in the financial district after the UK government this week encouraged companies to start resuming normal operations, albeit with instructions that those that can work from home should continue to do so.
One of the biggest challenges for the Corporation will be dealing with rush hour commuters into the City as lockdown restrictions are eased. It is worried that workers will drive to their offices to avoid public transport and is working with employers to encourage staggered shifts.
Documents seen by the Financial Times, which will be put before the Corporation’s planning committee on Thursday for approval, say: “On many of the Square Mile’s streets, pavements are too narrow to maintain safe social distancing, even if only a small proportion of the City’s workforce initially returns to work. In some streets it is likely that existing arrangements will be a danger to the public.”
The first phase covers Cannon Street, Cheapside and Poultry, Old Jewry and Coleman Street, Lombard Street, Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe, Threadneedle Street and Old Broad Street.
Catherine McGuinness, policy chief for the Corporation of London, said this was a “pivotal moment” in dealing with the pandemic. “Getting to the workplace safely is going to be key.”
If its plans work, the Corporation will consider making road closures permanent to support its longer-term goals of reducing vehicle traffic to improve air quality.
Ms McGuinness said this would be a “first step in a radical strategy” that will see the City move away from private car use. “Coronavirus has given us an extra impetus.”
The plans say that “in order to maintain social distancing and manage travel demand, there will be a medium-term need/desire to limit the number of people working in offices on any given day”.
“Even a small increase in the number of people using cars, taxis and private hire vehicles to commute is likely to lead to an unacceptable level of congestion on central London’s street network,” the plans add.
The Corporation is also working on how to bring cafés back into operation to ensure that workers can safely queue for food — although the City’s many pubs are expected to be closed until at least July.
The authority has not said how many of the City’s 550,000 workers it expects to return and when. Property owners in the financial district such as Land Securities have said that their offices are working at about 10 per cent capacity at present.
The first phase of the Corporation’s plans is expected to be finished by the last week of May “in advance of a significant return of workers to the Square Mile”.
Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has separate plans to give space to new cycle lanes and wider pavements to enable social distancing, but the City has particular challenges given its narrow medieval lanes and areas around key transport links that can get easily overcrowded.
The Corporation is also worried that “after a relatively long lockdown period there may be an increased desire to engage in activities in the public realm”, according to its plans. It wants to ensure safe areas to eat and drink in the summer where possible.
The Corporation’s plans also point out that Covid-19 could mean a longer-term effect on traffic levels. During the 2008 recession, traffic in the Square Mile fell 16.5 per cent between 7am and 7pm — but there was no subsequent rebound in volumes as the economy recovered.
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