The Pandemic Could Be an Opportunity to Remake Cities


Last Tuesday, a Gemballa Mirage GT barrelled into a series of parked cars on a Manhattan street. The driver fled and was arrested. And for a moment, New York seemed almost normal, free of the quiet that has ruled the city for three weeks, since residents were ordered to shelter in place to corral the spread of the novel coronavirus. As traffic has evaporated, car crashes in the city have dropped more than 50 percent compared with the same time last year. So have injuries to drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists. The air is cleaner, the honking but an echo.

Cities that have seen traffic calmed, however, face a new kind of congestion—not on their streets but their sidewalks. Like urbanites around the world, New Yorkers barred from offices, bars, theaters, and restaurants are crowding into the city’s public spaces, often trampling social distancing rules in the process. Mayor Bill de Blasio said police will begin fining people up to $500 for disobeying the order to stay 6 feet from others, a price that has since doubled. “Anyone who’s not social distancing at this point actually is putting other people in danger,” the mayor said on The Today Show.

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De Blasio and many other civic leaders are trying to enforce the 6-foot line by restricting access to places where people get together: dog parks, basketball courts, playgrounds, beaches, hiking trails, and the like. The problem with curtailing the supply of open space, though, is that it doesn’t reduce demand. People still need to go outside, some to work, others to play, all to keep their sanity intact. Now, though, the demand comes chiefly from people on foot, rather than in vehicles.

In that shift, urbanists see a chance to save city dwellers not just from the sweep of a pandemic, but from the auto-centric culture that has dominated urban life for decades. They want to prioritize the movement of people—pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and their ilk—over cars. This isn’t just opportunism, a shot at grabbing street space while most cars are parked. A range of tactics long demanded by urbanists can make life outside more pleasant and practical amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. And depending on how much life goes back to “normal” once the pandemic has passed, the moves could change cities for the better, and for the long term.

One easy, obvious option is disabling the buttons that pedestrians use to summon a “Walk” sign to cross the street. Advocates of pedestrian-friendly roads have long lambasted these “beg buttons” for making driving the default mode of transportation: no push, no walk signal. Now, public health officials see the devices as potential conveyors of the coronavirus. Several cities in Australia and New Zealand have rejiggered traffic signal cycles to include walk signals, no push needed. So has Berkeley, California. “That’s a good example of an easy and sustainable thing cities can do,” says Tabitha Combs, who studies transportation planning and policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By turning them off, cities are tacitly admitting that the buttons aren’t meant to make intersections safer for pedestrians, but to keep cars moving as much as possible. “They’ve let the cat out of the bag that it’s something they can do,” Combs says.

The bigger move is closing streets to vehicles, so people have more room to walk around or exercise. Bogota, Colombia; Calgary, Canada; Denver, Colorado; St Paul, Minnesota; Cologne, Germany and other cities have blocked off stretches of road in recent weeks. Friday, Oakland said it will close 10 percent of its street network—74 miles worth—to vehicle traffic. Others, like Vancouver, have booted cars from roads in parks. Closing streets, though, demands resources, including materials to indicate cars are no longer welcome and people to enforce the new regime.

New York tried its own street closures, but its program cordoned off just a few blocks and lasted only 11 days. In a muddled explanation for why he axed the effort, de Blasio cited a lack of manpower. “We did end up using up a lot of NYPD personnel that we don’t have to spare right now,” the mayor said in a press conference last week. In Toronto, transportation officials rejected calls to close a stretch of Yonge Street to vehicles, arguing that it would encourage people to gather, rather than spread out. But that argument may be flawed. “Shutting things down because they’re becoming too crowded seems pretty self-defeating to me,” Combs says. “Restricting the supply won’t have a concomitant effect on demand.” To help people get outside and stay safe, she says, cities should make more space for them, not less.

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Cities that fear overcrowding should create many pedestrian-focused zones, argues urban planning consultant Brent Toderian, so all residents have one nearby. Those traffic-free streets should be “very ordinary, non-sexy,” he advised on Twitter. “The opposite of a destination or a scene, because you don’t want to gather large crowds and you don’t want people traveling long distances to get there.” Toderian also advises making those reallocated streets into a network “that can be used for transportation and mobility” by health care workers and others who need to leave home for more than a bit of air.

Mobility is key here, especially in cities where many employees of essential businesses—hospitals, grocery stores, delivery services, and the like—don’t have cars. “The actions cities are taking that are purely to give people room to roam, not necessarily room to get anywhere, I think they’re useful,” says Combs, who also created a public spreadsheet cataloging such local actions. “But I don’t think they’re enough and I dont think they’re equitable.” Many public transit agencies have cut service to protect their workers, making their systems less useful for riders. In some cases, the few buses or trains they do operate become too crowded for riders to keep their distance. Making it easier and safer to travel by foot or bike—standard urbanist fare—could alleviate that stress.

Some cities have worked to do that, chiefly with more cycling infrastructure. Bogota brought out cones to add 72 miles of bike lanes to its already-robust network. Berlin fast-tracked the creation of a new wave of bike lanes. Budapest is installing temporary bike lanes on major thoroughfares and encouraging people who must leave home, whether to work or to shop, to pedal instead of drive. The Hungarian capital may make some of the upgrades permanent, depending on how things go.

Like so many other changes wrought by the pandemic, it’s hard to predict the endurance of these efforts. “We’re really early in understanding how cities are responding,” Combs says. “And I think there are a lot of lessons to learn from a resilience and disruption standpoint.” And even after the imminent threat to human health has been beaten back, those lessons could help keep our cities liveable.