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How cities are reshaping streets to prepare for life after lockdown

How to prepare for a future where people can’t crowd into trains and buses? Make sure you get more bikers—not more drivers.

How cities are reshaping streets to prepare for life after lockdown
[Source Image: ilyakalinin/iStock]

As the daily coronavirus death toll slowly falls in Italy and cities in the country make plans for reopening, Milan is beginning to transform 22 miles of local streets, adding temporary bike lanes and wider sidewalks, and lowering the speed limit. In Berlin, some parking spots have also become pop-up bike lanes. Paris is fast-tracking long-distance bike lanes that connect suburbs to the city center. And in Brussels, on May 4, the city center will become a priority zone for people on bikes and on foot.

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Cities are responding to an immediate need for transportation to change—as more people begin to go back to work, if subways and buses can’t be as full as usual while allowing passengers to maintain social distancing, biking and walking will need to fill the gap. But it’s also a way to accelerate plans to cut car use that were already underway to fight climate change and make urban air safer to breathe.

“If we all need to be healthy and move in a healthy way, there’s no better way to do that than to walk and bike, and providing the infrastructure to do that is absolutely key,” says Mike Lydon, principal at the urban planning and design firm Street Plans. “Traffic volumes will go back up. But it’s at this point where we get to decide in our cities how much of it we let back in, and to what degree it’s a guest.”

Without allocating space for more people on streets, cities will struggle with post-coronavirus transportation. In Milan, more than half of commuters used public transit before the crisis hit. It still isn’t clear how easily the virus spreads on a bus or subway car, though it’s obvious that in most cities at rush hour it’s impossible to stay six feet from other travelers. Milan plans to add circles showing where it’s safe to stand on the metro and inside buses, and it will limit the number of people who can board.

Those who can might still be tempted to drive. But that’s something the city very much doesn’t want to happen, both because there isn’t room for a huge increase in traffic, and because it needs to avoid air pollution now more than ever. Studies are beginning to link increased air pollution to more deaths from COVID-19. Northern Italy has some of the most polluted air in Europe.

“Things won’t be the same as they were in January of this year,” Lydon says. “There’s an opportunity to put that new order in place on our streets, and to make that more sustainable. I think the only way to help people not opt into choosing cars as a personal way to get around is to create the infrastructure that is desirable. And so short of doing that, people are going to turn to other choices.”

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[Photo: Robi_J/iStock]

Cities such as Paris are moving faster with plans that were already in place; Paris has a long-term vision of becoming a “15-minute city,” where people can easily walk or bike for daily errands within 15 minutes. In California, Oakland plans to limit traffic on 74 miles of streets, pulling from a longer-term plan to create “slow streets” that connect parks, schools, and other amenities, reducing the speed and number of cars. “It was, ‘Hey, that’s what’s in our plan. Let’s build as much of that as is possible now, set that pattern, and get used to it,” Lydon says. “Then hopefully people like it and do not want us to remove some of those changes, but to make them more permanent and durable. That, to me, is seizing the moment. That’s really intelligent.”

Other cities, such as Budapest, are acting quickly to add new temporary bike lanes that hadn’t been planned but may now become permanent if they’re popular. Budapest will “use the opportunity to build a bike lane network that was basically nonexistent in the core,” says Lydon. “They were one of the first to really say, Okay, this is an opportunity that’s important beyond the worst of the pandemic. We can trial these things now and get them integrated. It’s easier to build these and then promote them as being potentially temporary. We’ll see the impact once society starts to go back to work and back to whatever new normal will be.”

A permanent shift to more “active transportation” such as biking and walking would have multiple benefits. People who walk and bike to work live longer. With fewer cars, traffic deaths would decrease. Cities would be quieter. Asthma and other diseases linked to heavy air pollution would likely decrease. And cities would move closer to their climate goals. “A lot of challenges are being exacerbated by our system that we set up over the last 60 or 70 years,” Lydon says. “Now is a really great time to look at that and say that’s unhealthy from lots of perspectives, including during a pandemic.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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