Award winning TV Presenter’s open letter to the region

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Simon O’Brien is the Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Liverpool and the city region.

Initially famous as Damon in Brookside, Simon has forged a career as an award-winning radio and TV presenter.

But his enduring passion is the joy of two wheels, and he’s been an avid cycling campaigner for the best part of three decades.

Here he shares his thoughts, hopes and dreams — and the lessons to be learnt from Covid-19….

When we were hit by this appalling pandemic our everyday lives changed overnight. We came home from work, went to bed and woke up to a different world. All we now have is the neighbourhood we live in. Eerily quiet with nothing to break the silence but the birds singing.

We have adapted quickly and now use our one piece of daily exercise to walk to the local shop, ride our bikes with our kids through the traffic free streets or jog around our lovely parks.

So what happens when we have beaten this pandemic? I will hug my family and friends. I will go to the pub. I will also miss walking through the peaceful clean air in my neighbourhood.

Is it inevitable that as businesses and workplaces reopen we must once more fill our roads with pollution and make going for a walk a hazardous occupation? If we just continue our ‘business as usual’ before lockdown then we will do an injustice to many of those vulnerable people who have had to self isolate. Our air during ‘normal’ times is toxic. It causes and increases asthma and other respiratory problems. Exactly the health issues that make a person high risk to Covid 19.

We have come together in an amazing way to save thousands more lives. Yet for many years our everyday choices have added to another invisible killer. Air pollution leads to the early deaths of 40,000 people a year in the UK not to mention nearly 30,000 killed or seriously injured on the roads. Self isolation has been very hard for the mental wellbeing of lots of us and yet dangerous, noisy roads have created traumatic mental isolation for many people for decades.

I find it bewilderingly puzzling that we can change the way we live in a heartbeat to help save lives and yet go on adding to the cause of so many other deaths and health problems every day. Electric cars are not the easy fix. They still need energy. They still pollute and they still make roads feel unsafe.

I believe that now is the moment reflect. To change direction. Can we once more have a vibrant economy across our region with bustling shops and bars and quiet, clean and safe neighbourhoods? Is it possible or just a pipe dream?

I know it is possible. I have visited Waltham Forest where the community came together a few years ago to create ‘Quiet Neighbourhoods’ where only people who live there would want to drive there. It’s easier to walk or ride to the shops. People wander down the middle of the road pushing prams and chatting. The local High Street didn’t die when they banned all traffic except the local bus. It flourished.

I took the train to the city of Ghent in Belgium. In just one weekend they had done the same thing across an entire city. The suburbs are now quiet and the booming city centre belongs to people. Not pipe dreams. Real places. Real Answers.

One thing this terrible disease has shown is that we can change dramatically if we want.

I urge everyone: businesses, communities and individuals to come together behind the growing political commitment. Let’s have a healthy, quiet revolution across the Liverpool City Region. Let’s keep walking, keep riding. Let’s walk up the middle of the street, listening to the birdsong on the way to the pub.