On Saturday 30th May, Extinction Rebellion Cambridge stood alone together at Shire Hall to protest the lack of meaningful action on transport justice and pandemic safety from Cambridgeshire County Council and other local authorities. Rebels stood for a full hour - socially distanced at 3 metres apart and wearing face masks and gloves. They held placards bearing messages such as “Let Us Breathe”, “Pandemic Safety = Road Safety” and “We need to socially distance”.
The action came in the wake of £2 billion of funding released by Central Government to pay for alternative ways to travel as public transport use is minimised during the coronavirus pandemic. Local authorities have been told to promote walking and cycling to avoid an unsustainable increase in the number of cars on the road, which would drive up pollution levels and worsen congestion. Reduced car numbers will also make it easier for pedestrians, cyclists, and mobility-scooter users to socially distance while out and about, which would normally be made difficult due to the dominance of motor vehicles on our streets.
Extinction Rebellion Cambridge states that in spite of instructions from Central Government, local authorities in Cambridge have been slower than many to boost provision for cyclists, even though the bike is synonymous with the city. The group also argues that the needs of residents who are unable to cycle and walk must be considered, including those with disabilities and people who live outside the city. Safe, green transport is essential for these residents as well.
Extinction Rebellion Cambridge have highlighted the urgent need to eliminate air pollution as we fight against coronavirus - air pollution has been shown to increase the severity and mortality of COVID-19 cases while also helping to spread it. The group also stresses that air pollution is not just a threat during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the council, air pollution kills 106 people in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire every year; it also implicated in diseases and conditions such as lung cancer, respiratory infections and asthma.
Marcus, a member of XR Cambridge, said: “Many other councils around the UK and abroad have jumped at the chance to make life safer for their citizens. In Cambridge, however, the City and County Councils, Mayor James Palmer, and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) can’t seem to decide who, if any of them, is going to do anything. They only put in pop-up cycle lanes after we took the initiative to put in our own (and this is months later than many other local councils in the UK) and when they did put them in, they were narrow, looked like parking spaces, and confined cyclists to the pot-holed gutters of the roads.
“They’ve also done little to help those who can’t cycle or walk. On 1st January 2020, XR Youth Cambridge demanded that Cambridge’s outdated carbon-intensive transport system must be overhauled to provide affordable access to all so that, for example, wheelchair users could travel without needing to rent or own a car - the councils of course ignored this. GCP’s own Citizens’ Assembly on transport in Cambridge also seems to largely have been ignored. The participants called for fairer, people-first public transport that is reliable, fast, and environmentally friendly. Nothing of the sort has been delivered.”
XR Cambridge also echoes the Cambridge Cycling Campaign that: “Ensuring safe space for walking and cycling will crucially reduce the burden on the NHS by decreasing the spread of coronavirus and the likelihood of road traffic injuries, and benefiting physical and mental health through greater physical activity, cleaner air and allowing time outdoors while still physically distancing. People will be reluctant to use public transport and without alternatives in place, we risk increased levels of private car use leading to more air pollution and road danger. Cambridge will grind to a halt with even a slight increase in car traffic from pre-lockdown levels, which will hurt our recovery.”
All rebels taking part in the protest did so during their daily exercise, wore masks and observed social distancing measures to ensure the safety of all involved. An XR Youth Cambridge member said: “We wish we had time to wait for the coronavirus crisis to end before going back to tackling the climate crisis, but we don’t, because they’re inextricably linked. Activism is something that is very hard to do purely from home, so we believe our protests must continue, albeit in a more socially distant form with more safety measures. We are very careful not to break the terms of the lockdown, but if the climate crisis is allowed to continue unchallenged, the consequences for global public health will be dire - much, much worse than the current pandemic. Many doctors, medical staff, and even the editor of The Lancet, a major medical research journal, have stated this but have been ignored by the government. We don’t have any more time, and the current crisis shows this.”