Since early this year, when Covid-19 was first acknowledged as being a global pandemic, news reports display urban images of the kind we’ve never seen before. Whether Delhi, Paris, Milan or Wuhan, cities are typically shown as being traffic free and apparently deserted of people, with businesses closed and boarded up.
On Thursday 23 April – exactly one month since the UK government placed the country into lockdown – I decided to travel a few miles from my home to get a sense as to how quiet London’s city centre really is. Although the country is “locked-down”, we’re not locked away: the government allows us to leave our homes for limited purposes. None of these reasons specifically include sightseeing, but we are permitted to go out once a day to exercise. Cycling is presented as an example.
I can’t remember when I last dared to ride my bike into the city centre, but it certainly has been some years. In terms of pure cycling (or should I say “exercise”?), Thursday’s experience could not have been more pleasant. The weather was perfect (warm, but not too warm), the sky was beautiful deep blue and traffic was either extremely light or non-existent (a consequence being that air pollution levels have fallen dramatically).
My exercise period lasted from about noon until 3pm, which is probably longer than the framers of the official lockdown guidelines had in mind. In before-coronavirus times, the middle of a weekday would have been, of course, a busy time period in central London areas that I passed through.
These days the city is quiet, but not asleep. While central London certainly didn’t resemble a ghost town, the look and atmosphere was slightly eerie.
While riding around and during occasional rest stops (which the exercising rules do permit, as long as the rest period is proportionate to the activity), I spotted quite a few office staff, utility repairers, road and building workers, though of course nowhere near the numbers during normal times. I noticed people carrying bags of groceries, a reminder that the city centre is indeed inhabited, though it was not clear where they made their purchases given that many local food shops are closed. There may have been fewer police officers than usual, but perhaps they’re simply more noticeable than usual because those who are on patrol are strikingly disproportionate in number to the members of the public who are on the streets.
A substantial proportion of road users were fellow bike riders. Some were there for work (like the Deliveroo riders transporting meals to people sheltering at home), but most seemed to be simply there to enjoy a novel experience of safely riding along quiet city centre streets, without fearing being mowed over by a truck turning a corner.
As far as motor vehicles on the roads, it was striking how many buses were on the roads, most of which appeared to carry no more than a handful of passengers. Since London entered lockdown a month ago and all but essential travel being discouraged, bus journeys have fallen by 85% and underground journeys by 95%. Despite this dramatic drop in demand, so that passengers can abide by social distancing rules, the actual number of buses in service hasn’t changed all that much.
In the UK, following examples being set by other European countries, there’s increasing discussion of a staged reopening of businesses. How and when this will be possible in normally highly congested central London is hard to fathom.
A key issue will be transport. Almost certainly commuters will be required to wear face masks or coverings while travelling. But it’s difficult to see how, while the threat of the virus remains, buses and trains will be able to cope with the need to travel into and within London again. Even with a phasing of reopening businesses and the staggering of work times, it is doubtful that truly effective social distancing on the transport system can be designed.
Whatever is decided, I know for sure that it’ll be a very long time before I’ll feel comfortable travelling by underground or even by bus. And when I do eventually venture into the city centre again, crossing a street will be a very different experience from when I did so during lockdown.