A £10 million fund will create “pop-up” walking and cycling routes in towns and cities across Scotland during the lockdown.
The move is intended to enable safe social distancing during the coronavirus restrictions, but also take advantage of huge rises in exercising, including a 35% increase in cycling.
Transport Secretary Michael Matheson urged councils to be “bold” as they bid for the cash, and to use it for projects that can be delivered quickly, potentially within weeks.
He announced the initiative to MSPs on Tuesday as he confirmed that public transport services may have to operate at 10% to 25% of previous capacity to support social distancing when the lockdown eases.
The £10m could be used for schemes which involve reallocating road space to create wider cycle lanes or pavements, and council projects would be supported by officials at Transport Scotland and Sustrans Scotland.
The changes are supposed to be temporary but many campaigners believe they could become a first step towards an overhaul of streets in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
The idea of reallocating money for such work was first raised behind the scenes two weeks ago, and Mr Matheson has now written to all councils urging them to bid.
The cabinet secretary said: “Our communities need this support quickly, especially with the welcome increases in cycling we are seeing across the country.
“At the same time, almost every journey starts and ends on our pavements in some way, and so it is vitally important that people can physically distance for those essential trips or for exercise.”
I hope that Aberdeen can join the many other cities around the world in using the coronavirus crisis to find durable, practical ways to build a vibrant city going forward with cleaner air and more opportunities to walk and cycle.”
Sandra Macdonald, transport spokeswoman at Aberdeen City Council and chairwoman of north-east transport body Nestrans, said: “Council officers are already considering local measures to facilitate active travel during a prolonged Covid-19 scenario to enable safer conditions for walking and cycling as well as considering broader issues of social distancing such as queuing outside shops, at bus stops and on narrow streets.
“The announcement is welcome and depending on funding being secured, legal guidance being in place and council staff being able to safely carry out the necessary work, I hope that Aberdeen can join the many other cities around the world in using the coronavirus crisis to find durable, practical ways to build a vibrant city going forward with cleaner air and more opportunities to walk and cycle.”
Allan Henderson, vice-convener of Highland Council and chairman of regional transport partnership Hitrans, also backed the proposals.
“This new fund is to be welcomed as pedestrian and cycle counter data across Inverness show that many routes are showing similar or higher numbers of people walking and cycling compared to this time last year, while vehicle counts have declined,” he said.
“Highland Council is considering ways in which routes to key destinations could be made safer for key workers walking and cycling to their workplaces, childcare and to food outlets, and including links to main transport interchanges.
“They are also looking at recreational and active health routes which are under potential pressure just now, through narrow pavements etc, for people to maintain a safe physical distance, and where there are high numbers of people using a route.
“Ideas are being gathered for key towns and settlements across Highland as well as Inverness.”
A Dundee City Council spokesman said: “We welcome the transport secretary’s announcement and will be looking in detail at how this money can best be used in Dundee to support our continued efforts to boost active travel.”
However, Aberdeenshire Council’s deputy leader, Peter Argyle, sounded a note of caution about the impact of the move on local authority workloads.
“The challenge for councils, certainly for Aberdeenshire, is that all of our staff and resources are focused on essential service delivery – something that is going extremely well thanks to the commitment of our staff and their willingness to be redeployed into other work,” he said.
“Working up projects for submission for this funding would require staff to be taken off the essential work they are doing to scope, design and plan such new cycle and walking interventions – and at a time when routine road maintenance is on hold.
“I will be discussing this with the director but I hope Mr Matheson will appreciate that adding an additional requirement on transportation and roads teams, already at full stretch, will not be easy.
“Much will depend on the timing of this fund and the conditions attached to it by ministers or Sustrans.”