Councils have made a “very ambitious” £2.6million bid to fund 70 projects across the area, which total around 50km of new provision to help pedestrians and cyclists maintain social distancing while on the move.
Leaders say the measures will be vital to avoid a “catastrophic” rise in pollution, with an extra 100,000 car trips expected across the North East every day due to restrictions on public transport.
Regional transport bosses have refused to publish a full list of the 70 potential projects until they have been approved by the government, but they cover parts of Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham.
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Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon told the North East Joint Transport Committee on Tuesday that the plans could “radically improve” people’s quality of life and that he expects there to be demand for the changes to be made permanent.
He added: “I think we have a really great opportunity here. We are all local representatives or our communities and we know the difficulties even before Covid around schools and shopping streets – the absolute mayhem with traffic.
“It really does bother me with some of the limitations in capacity on public transport, if we don’t get these measures in now we could be in a really catastrophic place in terms of congestion and air quality and damage to our environment.”
It is feared that the region’s roads will rapidly become gridlocked as the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, with buses and trains only able to take between 15 and 25% of their normal passenger numbers due to social distancing limits.
While that could leave 400,000 passengers displaced, it is hoped that only 25% will resort to using cars – with others walking, cycling, or not travelling at all.
Transport North East managing director Tobyn Hughes said: “We do not want to go back several decades and have the area more congested by polluting transportation than it was before.”
While specific details of the 70 projects have not been revealed, they are expected to include key commuting areas that would offer an alternative to buses or Metro trains.
Town and city centres will also be targeted, as will beaches and other tourist attractions.
A scheme is also being designed to increase the number of bikes that the Shields Ferry can carry.
The North East has been allocated an initial £2.62 million from the government’s £250 million emergency active travel fund to pay for these projects, with a second tranche of cash to follow.
The projects must start within four weeks of councils being given the money and completed in eight weeks, otherwise the government will claw the money back.