The coronavirus pandemic offers cities a unique opportunity to reshape their streets by taking away space from cars and permanently giving them to pedestrians and cyclists.
With craters from public transportation, the demand for Uber and other ride services is tickling, and everywhere people are looking to get off the couch and feel a little breeze on their skin, the time for cities to take a bold stand against cars and parking is undeniable now.
By rapidly building a network of protected cycle paths, residents – especially those covered by “shelter in place” rules – could use their bicycles for necessary trips to the drugstore or supermarket, while also avoiding public transport. It can also close certain streets for car traffic help promote social distancebecause it is undeniably easier to keep six feet of recommended distance from someone else if you are not confined to a narrow sidewalk. People are flocking to parks to get some exercise and get some fresh air, making it harder for cities to control large gatherings and adhere to social distances. Why don’t you let them walk on the street?
Amid a pandemic, the need to fight inactivity is greater than ever. Last week, a group of nearly 50 academics and experts in public health and transportation wrote an open letter to the British government urge elected officials to encourage walking and cycling during the crisis. And that is not possible without taking away space from cars.
That’s not the only benefit for us right now. By making cities less car-friendly, we may be able to reduce the number of people who need to go to the emergency room when health care is overwhelmed: it is more difficult to get into a life-threatening car accident if driving restrictions apply.
Some cities have already started making these changes. Colombia’s capital, Bogota, is adding 47 miles of bike lanes to reduce crowds on public transportation, help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and improve air quality. New York City, that’s been a witness a wave of bicycles because people avoid public transportation, it said it would install bike paths on 2nd Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets in Manhattan and Smith Street in Brooklyn. Mexico City is considering quadrupling the cycling network.
We see early evidence of what happens when cities fail to do enough to promote these healthier, low-carbon modes of transport during the pandemic. Cyclist injuries in New York City increased by 43 percent between March 9 and March 15, according to NYPD statistics obtained by Streetsblog. This came after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to cycle to work, but did not build new protected infrastructure to handle the wave of riders. On Sunday Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo gave the city 24 hours to come up with a plan to tackle the overcrowding in parks, which he said should close off some streets to car traffic.
Many of these measures are temporary, meaning they can be easily removed once the pandemic subsides. This would be a mistake. The coronavirus pandemic has already changed many of our personal habits related to work and social interaction. It is also an opportunity for a different way of thinking about urban planning and planning.
Air quality is another argument against returning space to cars once the pandemic subsides. Satellite images detecting carbon emissions from car and truck traffic have been shown huge declines compared to major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta. Cities can help slow the inevitable increase in CO2 emissions by permanently limiting passenger cars from certain streets.
Car-free streets were on the way become a bit of a trend before the coronavirus emerged to disrupt everything. The rapid increase in cycling and scootering in the US, fueled in part by the emergence of shared mobility startups, has forced some cities to build secure bike lanes to curb the increase in injuries.
Likewise, the peak in traffic congestion due to ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft has resulted in laws limiting the amount of time drivers spend on passengers. Both of these phenomena have also contributed to building support for road blocking to ensure that buses can maintain their normal service. The two most prominent examples in the US are the 14th Street bus lane in Manhattan and Market Street in San Francisco. Both have proved extremely popular, right out of the gate.
Taking away space from cars – whether it’s closing off streets to traffic or removing on-street parking to create protected bike lanes – is almost always a controversial decision. Elected officials usually turn a blind eye, afraid of being scolded, protested, or even charged with car owners. They are wary of making such radical decisions because they think it will cost them political support.
But those officials ignore the grim reality that exists in the U.S. today. In 2018, motorists killed the highest number of pedestrians – 6,283 – in 30 years. Cyclists are also being run over and killed at an alarming rate: 857 were killed in 2018, up 6.3 percent from the previous year.
While people stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic, there have been far fewer traffic jams. But just because there are fewer drivers on the road doesn’t make things inherently safer if the people who are still driving do it without caution. There have been a few already anecdotal proof that some drivers see these clearer lanes as an excuse to drive or drive recklessly.
We cannot sit back and let our cities become a set piece Fast & Furious-style hijinks. Any car accident that results in an injured driver or pedestrian means taking precious hospital resources away from caring for people with COVID-19. Cities that take that space away from cars and refuse to return it can cause fewer injuries, better air quality and a more vibrant life for everyone.