How COVID-19 Could Change Transport Forever

COVID-19 could change the layout of cities for good, ushering in a new era of pedestrian and cycle-friendly design.

Nathaniel Bahadursingh Nathaniel Bahadursingh

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The COVID-19 pandemic has supplied a mixed bag of impacts on the world. While mostly negative, there have been sources of optimism. One of the most notable positive outcomes has been the unprecedented reductions in deadly air pollution around the world due to restrictions on travel and industry.

With research highlighting the linkage between air pollution and higher coronavirus death rates, some cities are planning to keep their streets car-free even after restrictions are lifted. Fighting congestion and maintaining social distancing is also a motivating factor to clear streets.

People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades as air pollution has reduced due to the COVID-19 lockdown; image via CNN

So far, the most ambitious planning scheme to move street space away from cars has been in Milan, Italy. The city and the surrounding Lombardy region are among Europe’s most polluted and have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to The Guardian, major traffic congestion and air pollution has dropped by 30 to 75% under Italy’s nationwide lockdown. In order to fend off a resurgence in car use when the pandemic passes, Milan announced that 22 miles of streets will be transformed over the summer to accommodate walking and cycling.

Called The Strade Apert plan, it includes the formation of low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 20mph speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets.

How the Strade Aperte project will impact Milan’s Corso Buenos Aires street; image via The Guardian

As noted by The Guardian, “Milan is a small, dense city, 15km from end to end with 1.4 million inhabitants, 55% of whom use public transport to get to work.” With average commutes relatively short, the shift away from cars to active modes of transport appears more feasible. Work on the new scheme could start on a portion of Corso Buenos Aires, one of Milan’s most important shopping streets, by the beginning of May. 

The Italian city is not alone. Paris has followed suit, planning to keep its streets car-free following the coronavirus lockdown. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, announced plans to maintain the anti-pollution and anti-congestion measures by encouraging the use of bike lanes and buses. According to ArchDaily, her vision includes the creation of fully protected bike lanes from Paris’ core to the suburbs, wider sidewalks, greenery and the conversion of lanes and parking spots into pedestrian-friendly walkways. 

The Rue de Rivoli, a central route in Paris, will be devoted mostly to active transportation after restrictions are lifted; Photo by Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg

Certain methods to contain the coronavirus have also shown they can improve general human and environmental health. The absence of traffic congestion has resulted in dramatically improved air quality, something believed to have a close relationship with the mortality rate of COVID-19. Cities like Milan and Paris have recognized this and are taking major steps to orient their urban layouts to better accommodate active transportation. 

While many of these moves are designed to help the cities transition back to ‘normal’ after restrictions are lifted, some may also turn out to be permanent adjustments to reduce the footprint of cars. It should be noted that the success of plans like these may depend on whether cities already have characteristics that support active transportation networks, such as a large size and high density. However, Milan and Paris could form blueprints for other cities looking to create healthier and more sustainable urban schemes.

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