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The Pandemic Has Taken Cars Off Urban Streets. Will It Last?
Yale Environment 360
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Cheryl Katz
Date Published: 
Transportation, Streets, Streetscape, Cities, Cars, Pedestrians, Urban Design, COVID-19, Transit
Tapestry Statistics:
2020-06-02 04:04:07
2020-06-02 04:19:49
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With a sharp drop in auto traffic due to the coronavirus, cities around the globe have closed streets to cars and expanded pedestrian thoroughfares and bike lanes. But as life edges back to normal, will these initiatives survive, especially if virus-wary citizens shun mass transit?

In a recent spring day in San Francisco, people strolled down the middle of what used to be a busy city street. Some discussed business on their cell phones. Others toted groceries, or take-out food from nearby restaurants. Bicycles whizzed by in designated lanes on either side. Except for conversations, whirring bike and scooter wheels, chirping birds, and the occasional car crossing an intersection, it was quiet — yet abuzz with folks on the move.

The same scene has been playing out in cities around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. San Francisco, which closed 11 miles of streets to most vehicle traffic in April, has just announced it will create a “Slow Streets” network of 34 miles, so residents have room to spend time socially distanced outdoors and get around without using cars or public transit. Nearby Oakland, one of the first U.S. cities to cede car space to pedestrians and cyclists, is designating a tenth of its roads — 74 miles — as vehicle-free. Seattle has made 20 miles of roads permanently off-limits to through traffic. New York City has blocked motor vehicles on nearly 50 miles of streets so far, with plans to eventually double that.

In Europe, Paris has one of the most extensive efforts underway to recapture its streets from cars, converting more than 30 miles of major arterials, including the Rue de Rivoli — the main thoroughfare across the city center — into a network of bicycle-highways stretching all the way to the suburbs. Brussels has built nearly 25 miles of new bike paths for residents to commute on as they go back to work. From Portland to Philadelphia, London to Milan, Buenos Aires to Auckland, dozens of cities are, to varying degrees, following suit.

For the time being, at least, cities are seeing the advantage of cutting back on vehicles in their streetscape. With cars largely off the road as residents sheltered at home, walking and bicycling have increased dramatically — clearing smoggy air, triggering an unprecedented 17 percent plunge in fossil fuel emissions, and leading to a range of health benefits.

Some experts foresee a steep drop in mass transit ridership and a jump in private vehicle use.

Could the coronavirus closures signal the arrival of “peak car” for cities — the turning point when the automobile’s unquestioned rule over the urban streetscape finally begins to wane?

Indications are that it will be an uphill battle. Already traffic levels are rebounding as travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic begin to lift. And, most critically, virus-wary commuters — fearful of boarding crowded subways or buses in places like Paris, New York, and London — may turn to cars, seeing them as a safe haven from contagion. Many transportation experts foresee a steep drop in mass transit ridership and a corresponding jump in private vehicle use in large cities, challenging efforts to diminish the role of the car in metropolitan areas.

“Mass transit is good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time, and that’s not good public health practice right now,” says Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studies. Transit ridership had already been declining in some American cities, including a roughly 25 percent drop in Los Angeles over the past five years, he says. The pandemic could accelerate the slide as shifts in travel during the crisis become permanent habits. “There’s going to be that residual effect of people changing behaviors and then not coming back to transit,” he says.

Nonetheless, many cities are determined to seize the moment and retool their transportation systems in the post-Covid-19 world.

“This is absolutely a time to rethink how we allocate public space,” says Sarah Kaufman, associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, who is on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s advisory council for restoring transport when the city re-opens. At the peak of the lockdown, “there was this glaring absence of vehicles on the streets,” she said. “That really made it obvious how much space had been allocated to vehicles.”

New York City, which is still largely closed, is just beginning to plan how to move people around when restrictions lift, Kaufman says. One of the most important changes will be widening sidewal