THE SCOTTISH Government has been urged to empower the country’s towns and cities can be transformed into healthier hubs for walking and cycling amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish Greens have called for a commitment from Transport Secretary Michael Matheson to work with local councils to immediately introduce temporary widening of pavements and segregated cycle routes in a bid to help encourage healthy modes of transport.

Air pollution levels in Scotland’s cities have plummeted amid the coronavirus lockdown - with the majority of commuters logging on from home, cutting traffic across the country.

Latest data shows that toxic nitrogen dioxide levels have fallen by 60% in Glasgow, 66% in Edinburgh, 57% in Dundee and 50% in Aberdeen.

This afternoon, Mr Matheson, will deliver a statement to Holyrood - and the Scottish Greens' transport spokesperson, John Finnie, wants him to lay out how infrastructure can be expanded.

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Italian officials in Milan have unveiled plans for 22 miles of street to be turned into temporary space for cycling and walking in a bid to better protect residents as restrictions are lifted.

The proposals include new and widened pavements, low-cost temporary cycle lanes, streets labelled priority for pedestrians and cyclists and 20mph speed limits.

In Paris, the first Sunday of every month is already completely car free in the city centre. Council bosses in Edinburgh have rolled out a similar scheme as a loop of the Old Town.

Last week, Mr Matheson said he has discussed the issue of transforming road space with Edinburgh's transport convener Lesley Macinnes and that he is "working with Sustrans Scotland on developing plans with a number of local authorities".

Legal changes are likely to be needed in order to allow councils to transform streets.

Mr Finnie said: “The response to the coronavirus emergency has changed how we go about our daily lives. Streets that were once choking with cars are now largely empty, and more and more families are taking their daily exercise or trip to the shop by bike or on foot.

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“I urge the Scottish Government to work with councils to take action now to widen pavements and ensure that people feel they can walk safely ensuring necessary social distancing measures can be maintained.”

Mr Finnie wants the Scottish Government to harness the opportunity to overhaul how road space is used amid the Covid-19 crisis.

He added: “Implementing temporary segregated cycle routes would provide people with confidence that they can cycle safely, away from traffic, and it would provide key workers with easy and fast routes to get to work.

“This change in how we travel has obviously come about as a result of a national crisis, but the benefits of lower levels of air pollution are clear for all to see and we should not let that go as we begin to ease the lockdown measures in the weeks and months to come.

“Safer walking and cycling routes benefits everyone’s health, they are good for the economy, and ensures that traffic is kept to a minimum in built up areas. The Scottish Government must seize this opportunity to build healthier towns and cities now.”

There have also been concerns that more people are breaking speed limits more frequently during the lockdown - with the RAC warning that 44% of  people have witnessed an increase in drivers speeding.

The Liberal Democrats have also called for new walking and cycling measures to be introduced in a bid to allow people to use social distancing while outside.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “To save lives, social distancing and the two-metre rule are likely to be in place for a long time to come. The risk is that if we don’t reconfigure our streets then people will increasingly be at risk of stepping into traffic during the phases after full lockdown.

“Public transport can only facilitate social distancing for a limited number of people - perhaps only a quarter of its capacity. That means people are going to need other ways to get to work, and that can’t just involve everyone piling into their cars because that could lead to gridlock.”

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He added: “I want to see a combination of widened pavements, temporary cycle lanes and priority streets which are closed to vehicles with the exception of residents and critical services. There should be new government guidance to encourage and help councils agree systems that work for their area.

“Authorities are doing this around the world, from New Zealand to Milan and Mexico City. This is about keeping the network moving and keeping people safe.

“It has been great to see people embrace their daily exercise as we all cherish our time outdoors. The transport system should be reset in a way that allows this activity to continue during the next phases. Without this we risk a resurgence of car travel, more accidents and more air pollution than before.”

In areas of London, part of the road outside shopping districts has been coned off to give pedestrians more space. Loading bays and parking spaces have been temporary suspended in Dublin, again to allow social distancing to take place effectively.

Stuart Hay, director of walking charity, Living Streets Scotland, said: “Many of our footways are too narrow. This has long been a problem for people with wheelchairs, buggies and other mobility aids but now it’s affecting everyone’s ability to practise social distancing.

“Cities worldwide are starting to reallocate road space to allow people to move more freely. Now we need to follow their lead.

“Filtered neighbourhoods, banning cars from certain roads, tackling pavement parking and lower speed limits can also all help to thin out overcrowded pavements and make our daily exercise easier and safer.”

Sustrans Scotland, which campaigns for better access to walking and cycling, wants to help councils make improvements to infrastructure.

A spokesperson for Sustrans Scotland said: “Sustrans has been consistent in highlighting the need for reallocation of road space to enable people to exercise and do essential trips on foot and by bike, while providing adequate space for social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“Towns and cities around the world are enabling temporary infrastructure changes, and we are keen to support local authorities in any way we can to make these changes in Scotland."