OVER recent weeks as our roads have become quieter and safer we have seen a huge increase in people walking and cycling in and around Dorchester. And you can smell the improvement in air quality from the reduction in vehicle pollution. Our existing road and street layouts were not designed for the huge increase we have seen in vehicle travel over recent years and do not readily lend themselves to safe alternative means of travel.

There have been concerns about Dorchester’s air quality since at least 2009 and before.

The Covid-19 has affected everyone some more so and tragically than others. As we start to take tentative steps out of lockdown it may be an opportunity to discuss what ‘normal’ life should look like in the future. Perhaps, dare I say, we could look to gain some positives out of the tragedy caused by this terrible pandemic.

One could be air quality. There are real concerns that as we start to come out of lockdown there will be a substantial risk of a surge in car use as people seek to continue to self-isolate. This is likely to be exacerbated by public transport's reduced capacity, Government’s suggestion not to use it and people’s nervousness about sharing space.

So our town roads that were never designed for pre-pandemic levels of vehicle use could soon become even more congested and polluted than before. The Government is trying to encourage more of us to walk and cycle to ease pressure on our roads and reduce pollution. And significant funding for councils to make this happen has recently been promised. There are strong arguments for this as it’s estimated 28-36,000 deaths a year are attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution. In addition there has been a steep rise in asthma particularly amongst young children attributed to poor air quality.

A Parliamentary report in 2019 concluded that 25% of all journeys are made on foot but these are almost all of less than a mile and account for only 3% of total distance travelled. The vast majority of journeys over a mile were made by motor vehicles with a staggering 60% of between 1-2 miles. Only 2% of journeys made were by bicycle – way behind other European countries. Although it’s interesting to see how many people, including families, have been out cycling and walking now our roads are much quieter and safer.

Some things we could consider to improve air quality and promote physical and mental wellbeing:

Make narrow pavements one way and improve/provide more crossing points to help with social-distancing that might be around for sometime; and

On roads with only one pavement widen them to at least 2 metres where feasible;

Ban the growing trend of pavement parking to avoid restricting access particularly for parents with young children, motability scooters and wheelchair users who are often forced into the road;

Create more dedicated cycle ways (cycling and walking don’t easily mix) – that might in time include e-scooters;

Reduce the speed limit on all roads in town to 20 miles an hour and 10 miles per hour around schools and nurseries;

Introduce resident only parking for all residential roads to reduce congestion by commuter parking;

Introduce a charge for businesses that provide employee parking spaces - the income from this would be ring fenced to be spent on providing more cycling and walking routes/infrastructure as could the profit from car park revenue;

Make some roads one-way to reduce rat runs and improve traffic movement or even look to close off some streets to through traffic as is being requested by residents of Colliton Street. Either permanently or during core peak times such as 7.30 and 10.00 and again at 14.30 and 18.00;

Close the High Street (the worst area for air pollution) to vehicular traffic (apart from say electric buses) and pedestrianise it between Trinity Street and Church Street as was previously proposed; Note: it has been suggested this can’t happen now because the bypass is over capacity (do we really want through traffic taking a short cut polluting the air we breathe) or in case it gets closed by an accident. In the case of the latter the High Street could be designed to allow it to be temporarily opened up to through traffic whilst the accident is dealt with;

There may well be other measures that merit consideration but it would be good to start a dialogue as to what we want ‘normal’ to look like post pandemic.

Richard Belding