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Pandemic Response Is Permanently Altering City Streets

Grant Samms
Oct 22, 2020

Guidehouse Insights

In New York City, restaurant patrons will continue to take priority over automobiles in the streets. The change, in fact, is going to be permanent. Restaurants in the northern hemisphere are bracing for reduced indoor seating capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic and unattractive weather for outdoor seating. Given this combination, there is a growing feeling that street space dedicated to vehicles could better serve communities if it hosted dining tables.

Even before the pandemic hit, vehicles were finding themselves increasingly unwelcome on urban streets. A ban on cars in Madrid’s city center has enjoyed strong resident support since July 2019. Oslo implemented a similar plan that same year. Both New York City and San Francisco eliminated car traffic from select busy roads in their urban cores before the coronavirus outbreak, opting to prioritize buses and cycling instead. These examples follow a several-year trend of municipal planners asking how best to manage road and curb space.

The Temporary Becomes Permanent

Once it spread around the world, the coronavirus dramatically altered transportation patterns. With a newfound need for outdoor space, cities accelerated their rate of street surface reallocation. New cycling infrastructure, car-free “quiet streets,” new parklets, and outdoor dining options have all emerged as more valued uses of parking and driving areas.

While many of these pandemic-induced changes were implemented as temporary measures, an increasing number are becoming permanent. As the weather grew more seasonal in Seattle, planners made 20 miles of streets car-free to enable socially distanced outdoor activity that the city now plans on keeping even after the pandemic is overcome. Los Angeles, Paris, Auckland, Buenos Aires, and dozens more cities are examining whether their temporary mobility measures actually represent a better arrangement during typical times.

Pop-up bike lanes have also been a popular measure for promoting safe transportation during the pandemic. Part of Paris’ response was a conversion of the famed Rue de Rivoli into a cycle way that the mayor has intimated will become a permanent city fixture. Once the pandemic hit Fortaleza, Brazil, the city considered deploying pop-up lanes to aid mobility. Ultimately, they decided to take the opportunity to expand permanent cycling infrastructure.

Disease Outbreaks Historically Highlight Problematic Urban Functions

These reconsiderations of urban space and function are not unexpected at a time like this. Health emergencies have a long history of spurring fundamental infrastructure changes. Outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever in the nineteenth century eventually led to massive civil projects to ensure the delivery of clean drinking water to all residents and the safe removal of waste from cities. Even the misconception that cholera spread by noxious air helped remap cites by bolstering support for the development of green spaces where people could find clean, pure air. The Spanish flu of 1918 provided a blueprint for our current response to an airborne viral pandemic by limiting public gatherings, wearing masks, and keeping the sick at home if possible.

Severe shocks have a way of highlighting poor planning in our municipal structures—not just pandemics, but climate-worsened natural disasters, earthquakes, and other calamities as well. In the early days of the current pandemic with vehicle miles traveled down nearly 90% in some US cities, the large amount of space dedicated solely to the automobile was laid bare. While many were already thinking about more flexible and equitable ways to use street space, the coronavirus outbreak brought the issue forward for everyone to see. It may serve as the catalyst for developing more sustainable urban mobility.