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Post-Pandemic ‘Metro Makeovers’ Could Bring Better Pedestrian, Bike Access

Ed Webster/wikimedia commons

Dense cities across Europe are making bike lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares the linchpins in their plans to slowly return citizens to some semblance of normal life—partly in anticipation of a transit-wary public, and partly to double down on a pre-pandemic trend of banning cars from city cores. 

For the city of Milan, in particular, the move is part of an attempt to design a pandemic-resistant “metro makeover” as Italy begins to pass peak mortality for at least the first wave of COVID-19, reports [1] CityLab. As it and other large Italian cities start to examine how to restart their streets and economies, “their answers could well provide an international blueprint for reopened cities.”

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First up for Milan will be redesigning its subway system to “accommodate a maximum daily ridership of 400,000,” rather than its pre-pandemic high of 1.4 million.

“The role that buses and subway systems play in spreading the disease remains incompletely understood (and controversial), but it’s clear that public transit systems risk becoming hot spots for transmission if they get too crowded,” explains CityLab.

Also critical in Milan’s plan to avoid another spike of mass transmission will be efforts to “flatten peaks in transit use” by reconfiguring the rhythm of daily life for students and workers. Ideas include extended shopping hours, staggering open times, and encouraging those who can work from home to continue to do so.

The fashion capital of Europe is also “going big on cycling and walking,” with a planned summer remodelling that will hand over 35 kilometres of inner city road from cars to bikes and pedestrians, and reduce car speed limits to 30 kilometres per hour. “The aim is to make traffic more fluid and give pedestrians more space to spread out safely,” explains CityLab.

Another reason for the demotion of the private automobile in Milan is the already well-established correlation [3] between poor air quality and high death rates from COVID-19. Milan, and Northern Italy in general, has some of the worst air quality in the country, and city officials “still battling a disease that frequently attacks the lungs” will be hesitant “to rely on a transit mode that does so much damage to air quality.” 

Joining Milan in car mitigation measures are Rome, Berlin, and Paris, with the City of Light boosting its long-time campaign against the car by “fast-tracking a temporary version of its planned new network of nine long-distance cycleways in response to the pandemic,” writes CityLab. The fist stretches of this network, which will link Paris’s inner city with its suburbs, are set to open in May. 

Brussels, too, is taking the opportunity to speed up its pre-pandemic pedestrianization plans. “From May 4, the Belgian capital’s entire city core will be a priority zone for cyclists and pedestrians, one in which cars cannot exceed a speed of 20 kilometres per hour and must give way in the roads to people on foot or on bikes,” CityLab reports. 

While some of these measures may be removed once the pandemic has truly ebbed, CityLab calls them “nonetheless highly significant,” noting that the winds of change that began sweeping across city streets before COVID-19 are not just urbanist hot air, but rather “durable, practical ways to build a livable post-pandemic urban future.”

Meanwhile, North American cities are struggling to find workable solutions for the need to maintain social distancing while still allowing stir-crazy residents to get outside for their physical and mental health. Across the U.S., writes [4] the Washington Post, there have been many instances of the public taking matters into their own hands—using, for example, makeshift barriers emblazoned with some variant of “pandemic protected sidewalk” to block city streets. 

Official efforts to close streets to cars in order to open them to pedestrians have met with mixed success in North America. Wired reports [5] that Oakland has committed to closing “10% of its street network—74 miles worth—to vehicle traffic.” And a number of other cities, including Calgary, Denver, and St. Paul, have been successful in closing streets to cars in recent weeks. In New York City, though, a temporary pedestrian street plan lasted only 11 days before Mayor Bill de Blasio called it off, citing the cost and logistics of staffing the car-free zones.

And even as the pandemic brings in short-term pedestrianization, it is casting shadows on the long-term horizon of sustainable transportation in North American’s urban spaces. Many transportation advocates fear COVID-19 “will deliver a lasting blow” to both transit ridership and urban density [6], “despite the fact that the spread of infectious diseases can be controlled in dense environments with robust testing and clear government messaging, as many Asian cities have proven,” reports CityLab. 

“I do think we’re going to see a greater demand for less-dense development in the future, which will be challenging for transit to support,” said University of North Carolina sustainable transportation scholar Tabitha Combs.