The coronavirus pandemic has shut down activity in cities around the world, threatening to push millions into poverty while creating severe pressure on governments’ balance sheets. Yet cities will need transport more than ever to avoid economic collapse, particularly for the majority that depends on leaving their house to make a living or provide essential services. Sustainable transport—public transit, walking, and biking—can provide efficient, dependable mobility that connects people to opportunities. Transport is indeed what sustains the agglomeration effects that make urban economies so attractive and make the urban labor market work.
But relying on private cars alone will not cut it, partly because they cannot absorb the large volumes of people transiting through busy urban centers every day. Car-centric development seems particularly inadequate in developing countries, where the proportion of households owning a car remains relatively low. Car travel moreover has a host of adverse consequences, from pollution to crashes causing alarming rates of fatalities and serious injuries, particularly among pedestrians. Cars also congest roads, negatively impacting the majority that travels by sustainable modes.
The point of this blog series is to show that a different path is possible. As highlighted in part 1, alternatives such as public transit, cycling, and walking can move millions safely and securely. They could create the conditions for a more robust, inclusive recovery. Importantly, these sustainable transport options could also drastically reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of urban mobility—a key priority considering that, despite the temporary dip in emissions induced by the pandemic, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in human history.
Bolstering public transport will be instrumental if we are serious about putting sustainable mobility at the heart of the “new normal.” And even though the pandemic has dealt a significant blow to the sector, the lockdowns have also provided unexpected opportunities to rethink public transit vs. private cars. Please refer to part 2 of this series for more detail.
In this third and last article, we will be looking at the potential of cycling and walking in light of the COVID-19 context.
Decisionmakers have quickly realized that bicycles could provide a COVID-safe way for residents to get around. Besides being an open-air form of transport, cycling also makes it easy to enforce social distancing thanks to each bike's physical footprint and the additional gap that cyclists need to leave between each other to avoid collisions.
As a result, many cities in both developed and developing countries have been deploying pop-up bike lanes over the last few months, from Paris and London to Berlin, Milan, Bogotá, Mexico City, Lima, and Wuhan. As part of this trend, new design guidelines help local governments implement simple changes to road infrastructure or signage, allowing for the creation of bike lanes at a low cost and in as little as ten days.
Although designed as a temporary solution, there is reason to believe that some bike lanes could become permanent. Public opinion is undoubtedly moving in the right direction: 56% of Londoners "want pavements to be permanently widened to make space for walking and 57% want to see new cycle lanes created and existing ones broadened." Further, with the right infrastructure, cycling can carry impressive volumes of passengers. In 2019, 583 km of permanent bike lanes in Bogotá absorbed 800,000 rides per day—about 6% of all trips, including walking and motorized.
Last but not least, walking is and will be a crucial pillar of urban mobility in developing countries, particularly for women and the poor. People walk to access public transport, to shop, or even to commute to work. Walking brings many advantages to cities and their residents. Promoting pedestrian-friendly streets can make travel safer, reduce air pollution, improve public space, and create a more inclusive environment for all users, including children and people with disabilities.
Because they require physical activity, public transit and active modes like walking or biking are also associated with tangible health benefits such as “lower Body Mass Index, lower waist circumference, less obesity, higher vitamin D, lower cholesterol and lower hepatic inflammation.”
The pandemic has made walking even more appealing because it is COVID-safe. Pedestrians on a sidewalk can typically avoid the three Cs that increase the risk of infection, especially when they overlap: closed spaces, crowded spaces, and close-contact situations. Sidewalks are open spaces. Pedestrians can usually avoid crowding and keep a safe distance of at least 1 meter. Moreover, pedestrians rarely engage strangers walking by, let alone closely. If needed, wearing masks can provide additional protection.
Yet pedestrians face significant challenges, including less-than-perfect infrastructure and competition with other transport modes. In developing countries, for instance, cars frequently park on the sidewalks, making it more challenging for pedestrians to keep a safe distance.
Cities can take many concrete steps to enforce parking rules and, more generally, to expand the amount of space available to pedestrians. Some are converting road space into “pop-up sidewalks” for the benefit of pedestrians and bicycles. Other cities are even creating “al fresco streets” to allow retail and restaurants to set up shop outdoors. Al fresco streets are an innovative way to avoid the Three Cs and enjoy life in a safe, responsible manner.
One can only hope these “road diets” will continue after the pandemic so people everywhere can enjoy the advantages of walking. Many cities are already taking this step and looking at long-term solutions to accommodate pedestrians.
Looking at the full picture
The pandemic has forced cities across the globe to take emergency measures that have helped Shift toward sustainable transport, Avoid unnecessary travel, and Improve transport infrastructure and services. This “Avoid-Shift-Improve” paradigm is precisely what sustainable transport advocates like myself have been preaching over the last few decades to transform urban mobility (please see figure below). While many decisionmakers used to balk at this approach, the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically changed the transport conversation: people are now clearly seeing the value of sustainable transport, and the idea of reallocating space or resources toward public transit, cycling, and walking has become a lot more acceptable.
The challenge is to keep the momentum going to ensure cities do not move right back to auto-centric development as soon as the virus starts to subside. If we get it right, the transition to sustainable transport could significantly contribute to a green recovery, revive urban economies, and create 15 million jobs worldwide. No one can afford to ignore this opportunity.
The author thanks Xavier Muller for the excellent editorial advice that made this blog series possible.