COVID-19 has created an opportunity to change US “car culture”, to bring it under control. The question is, will it be permanent?
COVID-19 brought “regular” transportation to a standstill or at least reduced it, with more telecommuting, unemployment and other issues. Fewer cars on the road means more space became available, and bicycles have provided a flexible, efficient and cheap solution to transportation. You can’t “socially distance” on a metro train or bus, but bicycles can travel the same speed several metres apart.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our cities in many ways. While the number of motor vehicles on the road has plummeted during lockdown, an increasing number of people have turned to walking and biking, moving speedily and safely through once congested streets. The shift has brought some visible changes: local air pollution has dropped by up to 60% globally, and cities that used to be covered with a thick blanket of smog are experiencing their first blue skies in a long time.
But what will happen now that cities are gradually getting out of lockdown? At the moment, many urban residents feel that public transport puts them at a higher risk of being infected, and perceive private vehicles to be safer. As a result, car use has recovered much faster than mass transit so far—morning traffic in major Chinese cities is now even higher than 2019 averages. That means higher levels of air pollution, more congestion, and a lower quality of life.
But there is an alternative to rampant motorization. If the current public health crisis makes individual modes inherently more appealing to users, why not use this as an opportunity to promote cycling and walking, which would produce greater social benefits, reduce pollution, and improve urban livability?
But encouraging people to ride more requires usable roads. In cities like New York where riding lanes were disjointed, there wasn’t much of an increase. But in cities like Portland and Minneapolis, networks of usable “safe” (slow) roads brought out riders in huge numbers.
If you build it, they will come. From October 2020:
In the nearly eight months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, cities across the county have closed roads, extended bike lanes and turned parking spaces into dining spots as a way to give Americans more space to move around safely during the health crisis.
Now, with the pandemic stretching on and many cities considering extending those closures through the winter, new research offers some indication of how the spaces are being used.
The study, by the traffic analytics firm Inrix, looked at five cities: Washington, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and Oakland, Calif. It found that in general, traffic volumes on the restricted streets — whether pedestrian, bike or car — remained well below pre-pandemic levels, a finding that is not surprising considering that overall traffic is down as well. As traffic volumes began to increase amid states reopening, so did activity levels on the restricted streets, Inrix found.
However, traffic varied based on the designated use of the roadways. In dense cities such as New York and Washington, for example, activity on the “slow streets” or “safe streets” was underwhelming, with usage lagging behind overall city travel.
Cities that created larger and well-connected networks of slow streets, geared toward recreation, such as in Minneapolis, saw higher numbers of people using the facilities, Inrix found.
Protected bike lanes built for commuting in New York didn’t attract as many commuters because fewer people were commuting, while there are indications of activity picking up in the open-street restaurants and even more on the recreation-focused streets, said Bob Pishue, an Inrix transportation analyst.
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The “Open Streets” movement has been embraced by cities around the world in recent years. The programs have various names — open streets, slow streets, safe streets and more — and vary from city to city, but they all have the same goal: restricting vehicle traffic to reduce pollution and promote healthier lifestyles.
The pandemic accelerated the trend, attributed to the need to provide people a place for physical activity while social distancing. Some cities implemented policies to encourage walking, biking and scooter use in neighborhoods and city centers. Some turned busy parkways where commuter traffic had largely disappeared into safe havens for pedestrians and bicyclists.
For people who are unemployed, it’s a cheap means of transportation. And for those wanting fitness while gyms were forced to close, bicycles provided that option. Much like when an earthquake hits, bicycles have become and can be used as a cure-all for transportation, and that’s happening now, with COVID-19. With any luck, the environmental and social impacts will have long term effect.
Social impact? Yes. Moving slower and being able to hear and see faces and voices (instead of being in a car) mean human contact. I doubt there is anywhere near the level of aggression and road raging amongs cyclists that there is amongst drivers. Talking builds communities, the isolation of vehicles separates them.
Safer roads, social distancing, fitness and transportation, environmental impact – what’s not to like? Riding season may be over in colder climes, but the effect may last into 2021 because the pandemic likely won’t be over until at least 2022.