The VE street party we can’t have tomorrow

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Duncan Dollimore's picture

The VE street party we can’t have tomorrow

Seventy-five years ago, millions of people took to the streets to celebrate VE day. While we can’t do this during lockdown, we can still get streets and space back for people as Covid restrictions ease. Duncan Dollimore Cycling UK's Head of Campaigns explains that as happened 75 years ago, we can grasp the opportunity from the current crisis to do things differently.

Friday 8 May 2020 was supposed to be a day of street parties, with communities coming together to remember and commemorate VE day.

After the military surrender was signed by Germany on 7 May 1945, ending the war in Europe, celebrations broke out all over the world to mark Victory in Europe or VE Day, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill marking the occasion by declaring 8 May a public holiday. Millions of people took to the streets, hanging bunting, waving flags, drinking and dancing.

Some of the most iconic images from that day are the pictures of trestle tables lined up for huge parties in the streets, which became places for people and their community, not just a corridor linking one place to another.

Streets for people

Some people will, I’m sure, find innovative ways to celebrate VE day this year, perhaps through virtual or socially distanced street parties, but Covid-19 has clearly scuppered plans for similar mass street celebrations. That’s ironic, because Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of public space, and why our streets should be designed for people, not for motor vehicles.

That’s the point we’ve been making with our Covid-19: Safe space for social distancing campaign, through which we’ve asked local authorities throughout Great Britain (and the Government in Northern Ireland) to take simple, quick and affordable steps to reallocate spare road capacity for walking and cycling. This includes using traffic cones to extend pavements or create temporary cycle lanes, or closing residential streets to through traffic to stop rat running.

Of course, active travel campaigners and others have been talking variously about 'streets for people', 'living streets', 'space for cycling' and 'places for people' for many years, but Covid-19 seems to have made this conversation mainstream.

People who didn’t know what active travel was a few months ago are talking about narrow pavements, how they’re having to walk into the road to safely pass each other, why they don’t want to use public transport as restrictions are eased, and the need for viable and safe alternatives.

They’re thinking about how the streets and places around where we live should work for all of us, for people, so that key workers can travel safely to and from work, and we can all socially distance as we transition to the new normal, and those who have started to cycle again in recent weeks, because it felt safe to do so, feel safe to carry on.

Thinking about things differently

Perhaps it’s no surprise that people are thinking about things differently. Five weeks ago, the UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the coronavirus outbreak was the world's biggest challenge since World War Two. But after celebrating VE day 75 years ago, people thought about things differently, and society changed.

During the current crisis the heroes have been our key workers, especially our health and social care workers. Yet, now that we sometimes take the National Health Service for granted, it’s easy to forget that establishing it in 1948 was a bold, controversial moment in our nation’s history. 

One of its three core principles, that it meet the needs of everyone, was also mirrored in another hugely significant post-war change that reflected how people thought about the countryside and public health, namely the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, which led to the creation of the National Parks

As a result, shortly after the creation of the National Health Service, a natural health service came about too via legislation intended to make the countryside available for recreation for everyone.

Free health and access to the countryside for all were landmark moves. I believe they were both extraordinarily positive changes, but the catalyst for change, or at least the courage to actually do it, followed the tragic events of World War Two. Out of the crisis came an opportunity for change, which politicians and society embraced.

Tomorrow could be different

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how tomorrow could be different, and what the new normal might look like. I was looking for the opportunities this crisis presents, particularly when it comes to transport and the movement of people. I wondered at the time whether this sounded slightly optimistic, but it’s starting to feel as though the voice for change is getting louder.

In Northern Ireland, the Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon couldn’t have been clearer this week, saying that “This lockdown has shown us how things could be. No congestion, cleaner air, safer spaces to walk and cycle. We can’t just go back to the way things were, we need to move forward and do things better”.

This lockdown has shown us how things could be. No congestion, cleaner air, safer spaces to walk and cycle. We can’t just go back to the way things were, we need to move forward and do things better.​

Nichola Mallon, Minister for Infrastructure, Northern Ireland

The Minister also referenced examples in major cities all over the world, such as Berlin, New York, Vancouver, Dublin and in Great Britain where local authorities have started to reallocate more space for walking and temporary cycle lanes are popping up, enabling commuters and those exercising to maintain safe social distancing.

That followed the announcement in Scotland of a £10 million Covid active travel temporary infrastructure fund, which local authorities across Scotland have been invited to bid from, following the doubling of cycling journeys since lockdown. .

And on Thursday, the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham announced that £5 million of emergency funding will be made available for Greater Manchester’s local authorities to implement measures giving pedestrians and cyclists more space to travel safely, making the case that we must also Build Back Better post Covid.

Is the tide turning?

So, I’m hoping the tide is turning. I’m sensing that people have an appetite to do things differently. I’m hearing the right words from some politicians and elected leaders, but not all.

Only yesterday I discovered that the Leader of Lancashire County Council has sent blank replies to residents who’d contacted him to ask about space for social distancing, pop-up cycle lanes and widening pavements, informing a fellow councillor that he had dispatched their emails “to the bin”. That tells me there’s still much work to do.

But getting back to VE Day, you might be missing out on a street party, and you won’t be reclaiming public space on Friday to share with your neighbours and community, but you can help us make the case for more space for people as we come out of lockdown.

Over 7,000 people have already supported our campaign by writing to their council, and we've already seen many local authorities closing streets for cycling and walking and creating temporary bike lanes to hospitals or other key destinations, as highlighted on this map

If your council hasn't yet taken action, please consider writing to them today using our simple online action which only takes a couple of minutes to complete.

If your council has done something and we’ve missed it, you can also email us at campaings@cyclinguk.org and we’ll update the map.

Seventy-five years ago, millions of people celebrated in the streets across the UK. We then saw huge societal change following a significant event in history, and there will be many conversations about what we do differently post Covid.

If you agree that we need to think about public space, our streets, and how we enable people to walk and cycle safely differently as we come out of this crisis and beyond, please take action now.

If we want politicians to act, we need to let them know that space for people matters.

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