Barriers to imposing car-free streets are being lifted following a government decision to enable key workers to walk or cycle more safely.
Normally, councils in England that want to close streets to cars must follow procedures that can take weeks to implement.
But ministers say councils can now cut red tape governing temporary road closures.
This could help people walk and cycle whilst social distancing.
Health and environment groups say the measures will also promote healthy walking and cycling – and tackle climate change and air pollution.
A letter from the Department of Transport to councils in England says: “This is temporary guidance and will be withdrawn once conditions allow.”
‘Gob-smacking’ vision for future UK transport
But campaigners say that, even after the epidemic peaks, many workers will still fear infection from public transport. They will also be wary of car accidents.
More space required
That applies particularly to novice cyclists, who have recently dusted off their bikes during the crisis.
The campaign groups want ministers to encourage all councils to make simple changes such as using bollards to shut streets to motor vehicles.
Brighton has already closed off a major road to allow people to carry out social distancing while walking, running or cycling.
The organisations behind the road closure initiative include Barts NHS Trust, Cycling UK, British Cycling, Sustrans, Brompton Cycles and The Ramblers.
Jonathan Kelly, deputy director of operations at Barts NHS Trust, told BBC News: “People require more public space to socially distance safely and the current set-up of the roads isn’t facilitating that adequately.
“As we move out of the virus, it’s important to maintain that distance to avoid infection.
“Personally, I would like to see many more road closures in future to allow people to use forms of travel that are good for them and good for the planet.”
It’s part of a global trend. Road closures have happened in New Zealand, Canada, Germany and the US.
In New York, the city council is preparing plans for 75 miles of “streets for people”.
Ashok Sinha, from the London Cycling Campaign, told BBC News: “First we have a moral responsibility to keep staff safe whilst cycling to work during the crisis.
“We know this crisis will end – but we will still be faced with an ongoing climate crisis which, longer term, will cause much more loss of life.
“We are being taught a lesson here about what a difference it makes to people’s activity and air quality and carbon emissions if we allow people to cycle safely.”
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “We remain generally supportive of measures to encourage more cycling and walking both during and after lockdown.
“It’s heartening to see more children taking to the roads on bikes.
“It’s too early to say exactly what will happen to transport post-pandemic but if trends of more people working from home and lower car use persist, then it might give us the opportunity to re-assess road use in targeted areas.”
It’s part of a broader debate on the future of transport in cities.
The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps recently said the overall use of vehicles would need to fall if UK targets for tackling climate change are to be met.
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