Lessons from lockdown: interview with Michael Matheson
“My ability to repair bikes has improved significantly,” says Michael Matheson, when asked what he has learned over the last eight months of coronavirus restrictions, adding, “I can now change a chain and everything no problem at all. And fix brakes etc in a way that I never learned to [before].” The keen hillwalker and mountain biker has had to settle for pastures closer to home and swap the all-terrain wheels for a road bike this year, but it has, he says, given him a new appreciation for the outdoors.
“I think if there’s anything I’ve learned personally over the last eight months, it’s how much I as an individual need outdoor space,” the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity tells Holyrood. “Since a very young age, I’ve always been very actively involved in outdoor activities from climbing to skiing to cycling, and I’m someone who always needs to have an opportunity to spend time in the outdoors.
“It’s just something that, as I say, I’ve been doing all my life,” he adds, “but I’ve got a new sense of appreciation of it in a way that probably I’d lost a little prior to the pandemic, so I now value getting into an outdoor space and being active in an outdoor space much more than I did prior to the pandemic to some extent. I think that’s the bit that I’ve learnt about myself, it’s just the importance of outdoor spaces have to me.”
Matheson is taking forward some of this experience and what others have shared with him in what he prioritises in his portfolio and what it means for him to ‘build back better’. Not surprisingly, walking and cycling feature heavily.
“I think one of the things that we’ve had a big focus on in recent years is around providing more active travel infrastructure. So that’s been much more about providing routes for people to cycle, much more to go walking, and all of that remains really, really important and we’re making very significant investments in those areas and we’ve made a long-term commitment to help to push that forward.
“The other thing that I think is a real lesson for us during the course of the lockdown is that – and I know that many people have made this [point] with me, at a constituency level but also at a ministerial level – is that they enjoyed their own local space much more when there were fewer cars on the road. So the times when during the course of lockdown when there was much less in the way of road traffic, people felt as though they were starting to take a bit more ownership of the space that was immediately around them. And it was giving them more space to do the things that they may have been reluctant to do previously because of the amount of cars on the road.
“So, if there is something that I feel over the last number of months that I’ve learned is as important as providing dedicated infrastructure, it’s also looking at how we can reduce the amount of cars and vehicles we have on our local roads, but in particular our towns and cities. Because if we can change the shape of our towns and cities to make them much more pedestrian friendly and for those who are using active travel, it will not only help to support those towns and cities, it will make them a much healthier place as well.”
Easier said than done, of course, with post-lockdown road traffic returning to something not dissimilar to what we had before. Part of it is getting the infrastructure in place that encourages active travel, but Matheson believes there is also an increased interest in walking and cycling that will last.
“I think there’s a lot of people will have had their appetite renewed in making use of active travel,” he says, noting there have been “significant” increases in walking and cycling and that many more people now own bikes. Investment in public transport and infrastructure is also key, especially reprioritisation of road space and bus prioritisation. But he believes there will also be a long-term change in people’s working habits that will affect travel.
“The numbers of people who are working from home will increase as a result of our experience during the pandemic. Maybe they don’t work from home all the time, it may just be on selected days that they work from home, but there is no doubt in my mind, some of the way in which people behave when it comes to travelling, commuting for work, will have changed and will have changed on a permanent basis.”
As a result, Matheson says, they need to look much more at supporting people to work locally if they can’t actually work at home.
He explains: “Some of the initiatives we set out in the programme for government around the local neighbourhoods is about looking at how we can take that model forward and actually about trying to create shared workspaces at a local level that people can make use of rather than having to travel or commute to somewhere for work purposes if they’re unable to work directly from home for whatever reason that may be.
“So I think it’s about trying to rebalance the way in which people travel and the reasons for which they have to travel and what we can do at a local level to help to change that and encourage them to stay more locally where they can do that.”
This idea of 20-minute neighbourhoods, where people can find all the facilities they need within a 20-minute walk of their home, were mentioned in the programme for government, and Matheson says it although won’t work for absolutely every community “the whole concept and model behind the 20-minute neighbourhoods is to look at other ways in which we can use existing facilities in some of these areas in a better way.” One example he gives is empty former bank buildings.
“So, for example, one of the discussions I had with a local council was if you look at the number of towns and cities, some of the suburbs within the cities, where they have vacant banks now lying empty. Are these spaces that could be converted into shared workspaces that could be used as a location for people to stay locally and work locally in a way that they’re unable to do at the present time?
“So, it’s not about imposing a model. It’s just about trying to find ways in which we can help to support where there is the opportunity to take something like this forward, to support them in being able to do that and to try to bring together the different component parts that can make it work, and that includes, as I say, identifying spaces that could be could be converted for work purposes.”
He also says the public sector needs to be challenged to look at more digitisation so that people do not need to travel to get information or access services. Digital connectivity, also part of Matheson’s portfolio, ties in closely with reducing commuting and is another area where attitudes have changed.
“I think the value and importance of digital infrastructure is recognised more now than it was prior to the pandemic,” he says.
One of the anxieties Matheson had early on in the pandemic was the capacity of our existing broadband network to cope with the significant uplift in demand as more people were moving to working from home and as the pattern of people’s behaviour changed. “So we were monitoring that very closely with broadband providers, just to look at how the system was coping with that. And by and large, it has coped very well with that significant uplift in demand.
“But one of the things that I think that we have been able to demonstrate during the course of the last couple of months during lockdown is that the potential scope for the use of digital means by which we engage with people, I think, has now reached a point where it’s become a bit second nature.”
This includes people’s use of video meetings software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which Matheson predicts will have to improve and become more “intuitive” as they’ve now become something people need rather than choose to make use of. But it’s also created the cultural shift towards digital public services in areas such as healthcare where it had previously proved very difficult and that is something they want to embed going forward.
Digital connectivity and home or local working won’t remove the need for travel altogether and the Scottish Government has announced it is investing £500m in active travel over the next five years. But could there be a risk this doesn’t achieve much if it isn’t directed towards a specific target? For all the money that has been put into active travel so far, for example, there are hardly any segregated cycle lanes in Scotland. There is a new cycling action plan coming, Matheson says, but he is also emphatic that he wants councils to think more about joined-up projects.
“What I don’t want to see happening is just creating more active travel corridors with dedicated cycle routes while at the same time we have committed to spending £500 million on bus prioritisation routes where we don’t align these investments so that we can help to support people in, well, if you are cycling more but you have to travel further, that you can also make use of bus to support you to do that.
“So it’s about trying to align elements of active travel investment with investment in supporting the transition to public transport as well. And one of the challenges I’ve put to local authorities is that we are providing record amounts of money for active travel and we have made a big statement of intent in terms of bus being a major priority, bus prioritisation or priority routes. What I also want to see is how you can align these investments in a way that supports people to choose active travel in the form of cycling or other forms of active travel but also making use of public transport.
“So I think these things have to be aligned much more effectively than they have been in the past in order to try and support people making that transition from making use of their car, particularly for shorter journeys. And I think if we can align that more effectively, then I believe we can help to support people making that transition more readily. And that will make a real difference to how folk go about using active travel and public transport.”
During lockdown Scotland got a glimpse of what a virtually car-free world could look like, but having come out of that, can the experience get us out from behind the wheel and onto two wheels? Matheson thinks so. And if not now, then when?