• Smart Infrastructure
  • Traffic Management
  • Urban Innovation
  • Urban Mobility
  • smart cities
  • COVID-19

Pandemic Conditions Accelerate Experiments in Smart Urban Design

Johnathon de Villier
Sep 02, 2020

Guidehouse Insights City

In the US, the coronavirus outbreak prompted widespread experiments in pedestrian-first urban design. Seattle, New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco are making changes to improve accessibility during the nationwide lockdown. Citizens have responded positively to improvements in quality of life that resulted from restricting vehicle traffic and encouraging foot traffic in dense urban areas, and there are already signs that some of these changes will outlast the pandemic.

Pedestrian-First Spaces Are Cleaner and Quieter

Seattle, Washington took early action to promote safe outdoor activities for its citizens. Following Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order in spring 2020, Seattle closed roughly 20 miles of streets to vehicle traffic. This closure enabled the 3.5 million inhabitants of the Seattle metro area to more easily access city resources, local businesses, and outdoor spaces while conforming to social distancing requirements and other safety constraints. 

Cutting out 20 miles of streets might seem counterintuitive in a city where the average citizen spends nearly 75 hours trapped in traffic each year, but closing streets and limiting parking creates myriad benefits. Restaurants have expanded outdoor dining, attracting pedestrian foot traffic and much-needed business. During the shutdown, carbon monoxide and other forms of air pollution dropped 30%-60% in 2020 relative to 1 year ago. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air expects reduced air pollution to avoid 11,000 deaths this year.

Benefits extend beyond air pollution. Shutdown-induced reductions in noise pollution are measurable at the global scale, with the greatest reductions in cities. In Europe, Paris reported noise reductions of better than 90% in some neighborhoods. 

We Don't Need a Crisis to Make Cities Smarter and Healthier

Though the pandemic has accelerated experiments in pedestrianization—at least in the US—an economic shutdown is not required to make health, environmental, and business benefits durable in the post-COVID-19 world. Even before the pandemic, cities that took the initiative to experiment with pedestrian corridors and events found that increased foot traffic benefited citizen health and boosted local businesses. 

To minimize tradeoffs associated with reduced vehicle traffic, city planners must be thoughtful about which streets to close or convert to preserve accessibility. Dedicated infrastructure for low impact, last-mile micromobility options can help meet the needs of less mobile citizens. All of these changes should be tied to expanded and improved public transport options.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Wider lanes, expanding roads, and free parking reliably attract traffic and increase ambient pollution. But the opposite is also true, outlining a clear path to improvement. Pedestrian malls, walking paths, green spaces, and bike lanes give citizens more ways to sustainably and safely explore and enjoy their cities. 

Pandemic-induced experiments in urban design will likely accelerate policy initiatives to clean up urban air. In May 2020, Seattle’s Department of Transportation decided to make its temporary road closures permanent. And as New York City slowly reopens its restaurants and businesses, it remains to be seen if diners relaxing in the midst of closed sidewalks and thoroughfares will want to give up their seats.