From Delhi to Dundee, New York to Newcastle, people across the world are confined to their houses and flats, trying to figure out the best way to work, parent, live and survive from home. Allowed out for only essential trips or for one limited amount of (local) exercise, people are being forced to appreciate the value of outside spaces and explore new ways of moving through cities and towns without using a car. While this has brought with it many benefits, it has also put pressure on pedestrian infrastructure as many people struggle to maintain social distancing on busy urban walkways, towpaths and narrow pavements. With mounting pressure on pedestrian infrastructure in cities, here we will explore some of the ways in which citizens and governments are making space for people in towns and cities and question what this means for the future of urban travel.
Issues surrounding urban planning and air pollution are topics covered frequently by LGIU. Past briefings include the impact of air pollution on mental and physical health, the link between childhood obesity and urban planning, how to make urban planning work for women and innovative ways of creating healthier, greener cities. Always of interest to local government and now more so as Covid-19 continues to take the world in its grip, these issues have been thrown into sharp focus.
The impact that lockdowns have had on travel has been stark; from local roads to international airspace, levels of movement have plummeted. In the UK for example, road travel has fallen in recent weeks to levels not seen since 1955. Similar patterns have been seen across the world and pollution levels have dropped in some of the planet’s worst-affected cities including Mumbai and Beijing. In the UK, as levels of air pollution dropped in the week the lockdown was announced, sales of bikes and trainers rose dramatically as gyms closed and people looked for a reason to leave the house. In many ways, this trend has been positive as people are rediscovering their communities, appreciating the value of nature and improving their physical health. However as local walkways and pavements, parks and proms become busier with people desperate to leave the confines of their homes, social distancing becomes harder.
As warmer weather approaches and despite Britons are being urged to stay at home, many parks and other green spaces have become dangerously busy, with some being forced to close and activities such as sunbathing banned across the country. However, the decision to close parks and ban certain activities has been criticised by some commentators who point out the detrimental impact this could have on those living in inadequate accommodation with no outside space who need public green spaces more than ever. As one recent article stated: “With living space, gardens and local area dictating our day-to-day happiness, the wealth gap has never been more glaring”. The disproportionate impact these measures are having on economically deprived communities was highlighted in a recent Guardian piece which noted that a third of all land in the wealthiest 10% of London wards was taken up by private gardens, compared to just over a fifth in the poorest 10%. It also noted the potential for these restrictive measures to have a particularly acute impact on BAME communities who make up half of residents in the poorest wards, compared to 20% in the richest 10%. Park closures are all the more concerning at a time when the need to tackle inactivity is vital. This was highlighted at the end of March when a group of 50 academics and experts on public health and transport wrote an open letter to the UK government urging elected officials to encourage walking and biking amid the crisis.
With increasing pressure on pedestrian infrastructure, governments and citizens across the world are finding ways to make room for people in the city. At least seven U.S. and Canadian cities have temporarily stopped or limited access to vehicles on certain roads in order to help citizens move through the streets safely. In Calgary, Canada, a number of roads have been closed to ensure that people are able to have the space they need when out in the fresh air. Similarly, in Minneapolis two scenic roads in the city have been pedestrianised during the lockdown. In Vancouver Stanley Park and some surrounding roads are now closed to cars amid a 40% increase in park users and in Winnipeg, four streets are restricted to cycling and walking from 8am-8pm daily.
Cycling has also increased in cities across the world. The use of bike share programs has doubled in Chicago and increased steeply in New York and London. In Philadelphia, bike traffic increased so dramatically on city trails that the City has temporarily closed a stretch of a major road to cars. In Central America the Colombian Capital Bogota is adding 47 miles of bike lanes to its existing network in order to help reduce pressure on public transport during the pandemic and to improve air quality, and Mexico City is considering similar measures with plans of a fourfold increase to the city’s cycling network. Both of these cities have also loaned bikes to healthcare workers and shut down some car lanes to give cyclists more space. In Europe, Berlin’s bike-share program is temporarily offering free half-hour rides to everyone in the city and the local authority quickly added new bike lanes to accommodate for the rising demand.
In the UK, Hackney Council has announced plans to use low-cost planters and bollards on selected streets to protect people from a growing number of speeding drivers on the borough’s roads. The plans will still allow access to emergency vehicles and key workers but prevent rat running drivers. Similarly in Richmond, London an initiative coordinated by local community organisations and businesses has seen bollards being used to widen pavements. Outside of the capital, in Bristol, some citizens have taken matters into their own hands by spray painting a ‘runners lane’ onto the road surface in an attempt to help maintain social distancing.
As the weather improves, more people are using parks and pavements – so why not give them the space they need by closing roads and enhancing cycling infrastructure? Doing so would reduce the likelihood of contamination, improve people’s mental and physical wellbeing, and help citizens feel more connected to and positive about the places they live. As people everywhere look for reasons to leave the sofa and breath some fresh air, perhaps now is the time for towns and cities to take a bold stance against cars by making room for pedestrians and expanding green spaces. Not only would this help to keep people safer during the current pandemic, but it would also pave the way to cleaner and healthier cities where at the moment roughly 40,000 people die each year because of air pollution – often in the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods. With the trend of low emission zones and car-free city centres present in city plans even before the lockdown took hold, this could be an opportunity to accelerate that change and not only reduce the immediate risk of Coronavirus but create healthier, happier and more just cities for years to come. Perhaps a small silver lining might be gained from this crisis, as what appeared impossible might actually be possible on the journey to sustainable transport.