The COVID-19 pandemic sparked unprecedented disruptions in the way people live, work, and move. The virus continues to pose challenges for public workers everywhere, but also presents opportunities for long-term change with sustainable transportation.
Pandemic planning requires providing transportation that is both safe in terms of virus infectibility and accessible during this time of increased economic stress.
We hosted a webinar on October 8 with four European transportation planners about sustainable transportation projects carried out in 2020 as a direct result of COVID-19. The panel included:
The planning professionals and sustainable transportation advocates shared details about recent pop-up projects in Manchester, London, Milan, Barcelona, Budapest, and other European cities. These projects were feasible precisely because of COVID-19 driven behavioral changes that occurred in spring and summer 2020.
Even before enacting transportation policy changes, cities across the world began seeing organic changes in their residents’ transportation patterns. During the webinar, our host Peter explained that there’s "an increase in local trips as opposed to long-distance [trips] thanks to more people working from home.” This trend is reflected in how:
Many locations have seen a dramatic rise in demand for cycling infrastructure, evidenced by the worldwide bike shortage (and, unfortunately, increased bicycle theft).
Why the sudden surge in bicycling? It allows people to comply with social distancing in public transport and provides opportunities for exercise without going to a gym.
The webinar panelists spoke about tactical urbanism, which refers to a strategy of making quick, low-cost changes to urban space. The hope with tactical urbanism is that easy-to-make changes last and lead to larger changes toward the same end. In this case, the end goal is to increase the viability of bicycling and walking as modes of public transport.
Tactical urbanism succeeds as an emergency response because of its speed and affordability; during a pandemic, officials must respond immediately while staying within shrinking or frozen budgets.
Panelists discussed how their cities used tactical urbanism measures such as:
Initial results of pop-up sustainable transportation projects due to COVID-19 are encouraging.
Discussing changes in London, John Dales said, "What we call 'light segregation' [of bicyclists] really works in terms of broadening the demographic and getting more people cycling generally." He reported that of 103 people interviewed on London streets since COVID-19:
Chiara Bresciani shared details about recent changes to cycling infrastructure and safety measures in Milan. She explained that COVID-19 provided "a moment for reflection on the mobility model for Milan." As a result, Milan will have:
Pop-up projects during COVID-19 are promising, but permanent changes in transportation will require overcoming the desire to resume the “old way” of doing things after the pandemic ends.
Peter Biczok gave an example of obstacles encountered in Budapest already. During the pandemic, the city converted a travel lane into a bike lane. Peter says, "As car traffic came back in August, then the arguments started and [the converted bike lane] became a debate." As people returned to work and traffic increased, drivers wanted their automobile lane back to reduce commute times.
Ultimately, Budapest brought back the through lane for cars but converted a parking lane along the same street into a bikeway. The problem has been solved for now without compromising the new cycling infrastructure, but the use of the parking lane could become another controversial topic in the future.
Although COVID-19 has generated many new challenges, it has also provided opportunities for advances in sustainable transportation. Our panelists around the globe have provided insight and learnings with their local projects that we hope will help inspire other planners in the weeks and months to come.
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