Slower Streets, Faster Recovery

As the world’s wheels begin to turn again, many cities are taking advantage of a unique opportunity to rethink urban space and ensure healthier streets.     

The sight of car-free streets, clear skies and returning wildlife has been one of the few silver linings to the weirdest spring on record. Now, though, it looks like something even greater is happening in our urbs.  

Accelerating post-pandemic recovery and adapting to the new normal means providing enough space for people to safely shop, eat, exercise, play and access services as locally as possible. And with people wary of shared transport, walking and micromobility like bikes and scooters are having a moment. Across the world, city streets are exploding in bright colored cones and painted lines as urban space is requisitioned from road lanes and parking to be repurposed as wider sidewalks or pop up bike lanes. It’s a global phenomenon, but one of the cities hardest hit by Covid-19—Milan—has become its poster child with a 4.5 km corridor in operation above its busiest subway line and an ambitious plan to clean up its reputation as one of Europe’s most polluted cities.

Meanwhile, cities like Cincinnati are allowing eateries to expand socially distanced al fresco dining into nearby parking spaces, while Seattle is turning them over to delivery vehicles to meet increased demand for take-out and online shopping. The future seems to have arrived early in many places, with 10-year car-reduction plans implemented almost overnight. Mindful of the need to calm traffic in parallel, cities like Brussels have also enforced a 20 kph downtown zone, while Oakland’s 74-mile slow streets network is only accessible to local traffic.

The pandemic has revealed some of the worst inequalities in our societies, with certain communities paying a higher price thanks to poor healthcare provision and services. It’s also highlighted the role of safe, efficient public transport in allowing essential workers or those who can’t work from home—often from low-income communities—to keep moving.

With this in mind, authorities are also prioritizing transit by expanding surface lines or implementing dedicated or priority lanes. At Shotl, we would like to see this go one step further by converting fixed services to on-demand, which would cut costs in times of low ridership while still serving those who have to travel. We also hope to see some of the well-known measures promoting sustainable mobility, such as creation of express bus lanes, on-demand mobility connecting industrial parks and transport links, and temporary park-and-rides at stations and freeway exits. All this would help keep people out of private vehicles.

We have an unprecedented chance to create a more sustainable future. In the interests of protecting public health, people are temporarily more open to changes they might otherwise push back against, like data sharing or converting road lanes for cycling. To build on this goodwill, however, authorities must involve citizens, businesses and stakeholders in consultations. It’s important to help people see the bigger picture. For instance, removing curbside parking outside shops means less convenience for customers now but pleasanter high streets, where people linger longer and spend more, in the long run.     

Sadly, it’s hard to take the long view when you’re hurting. However, the way we redesign our streets now will be crucial to our recovery and response to future outbreaks. Let’s be brave and seize this once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim them for people and make our cities fairer, greener places we can all enjoy.

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