During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities saw that another urban transport is possible – can they make it last? Chris Dekki on the resilient and innovative nature of urban settlements.
Cities are resilient places. They are a reflection of the strength of the very beings that call them home. Since the birth of civilisation, cities have faced persistent problems – from war and natural disasters, to corruption and disease – yet they always seem to rise up again, often stronger than before.
Today, cities are confronted with a cacophony of unprecedented modern challenges: a few of their own making, a few as a result of a wide variety of forces. Ongoing economic difficulties portend increased financial struggles, especially as inequality around the world continues to grow. In addition, geopolitics, mass migration, and xenophobia have all weakened the fabric of urban life. But these challenges have only been exacerbated by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been wreaking havoc on cities for almost a year.
The delivery of key urban services, and city life in general, has been disrupted by an enemy that cannot be seen, and spreads from person to person without warning. This has made dense urban living almost anathema, with people of means rushing off to suburban or rural retreats in an attempt to weather the storm. But, as this tumultuous year has proven, individuals cannot defeat the coronavirus alone. No amount of running away from cities will protect humanity from COVID-19. The lesson to be learned from this crisis – and truthfully, all other crises, from climate change to biodiversity loss – is that a strong, cohesive society and, by extension, global community, is the best defence against the pandemic.
Nevertheless, as the world hurries to find a COVID-19 vaccine that can be quickly and easily mass produced and distributed, cities are working to enhance the lives and well-being of their people (the ones who’ve stayed at least!), while protecting them from infection. Innovative approaches to urban service delivery in cities around the world have underlined the truth of urban resilience and changed the nature of how people live, work, and play.
Innovating How We Move
Of all the aspects of city life that have been impacted by the pandemic, one of the most affected ones is transport. For weeks during lockdown, city streets were empty as people stayed home to practice physical distancing. Trains and buses were transporting (mostly) air, and cars and trucks were rare sights on roads. While this urban standstill proved to be economically detrimental, it did provide opportunities for cities to reimagine their streets.
Mobility innovations as a result of the pandemic included a number of approaches to reformatting urban space and the car-centricity of streets. Using tactical urbanism measures, cities have taken bold steps to transform streets, giving people a little more room to move and breathe. In both the Global North and South, local governments worked directly with communities to bring about an evolution of mobility.
In Bogotá, Colombia, the local authority took advantage of lighter road traffic to expand its open streets initiative, the Ciclovía, adding more than 80 kilometres of permanent pedestrian and cycling-only streets. These “pop-up” walking and cycling lanes continue to be extremely popular with locals, providing people with added space to distance from one another, as well as an opportunity to increase physical activity. The Ciclovía has also brought about a cultural shift – changing how people approach transport and fostering a greater appreciation for sustainable modes. Its growth can only further lead people away from overreliance on private vehicles.
Other cities have also followed in Bogotá’s footsteps, increasing the number of bike lanes and encouraging people to use bicycles to commute to work. These include cities like New York, which doubled the number of its temporary bike lanes at the height of the pandemic. In addition, New York is working to continue its Open Streets and Open Restaurants programmes, which have closed city streets for the exclusive use of pedestrians and eateries. This removes the burden of ever-circling automobiles and allows local shops, cafes, restaurants, and other businesses to benefit from the extra non-vehicular traffic.
In Athens, Greece, the mayor has taken the bold step of re-allocating around 50,000 square metres of space to walking and cycling, citing a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to clean up the city from the effects of space-consuming, polluting cars. Herein lies the genius of COVID-induced urban innovations: cities have an opportunity to bring about a renaissance in their transport and mobility systems, to decrease the number of motor vehicles on streets, and further align policy and planning priorities with global frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.
Can COVID Curb Climate Change?
While many urban mobility innovations are becoming permanent, there is certainly still more work to be done to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic. While innovative approaches to non-motorised transport (NMT) have helped people move safely as COVID-19 raged (and in many places, continues to rage), the next step is to apply these principles to a reinvigoration of public transport systems – connecting buses, rail, and other modes to ever-expanding walking and cycling infrastructure.
The vast majority of humanity does not own a car, yet streets in cities from Africa to Asia to North America are designed mostly with motor vehicles in mind. Cities are literally choking thanks to these archaic, yet persistent, design choices. By building on urban mobility innovations and bolstering public transport, cities can begin to chip away at ever-growing transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which already account for a whopping fourth of global energy related emissions.
Innovating Our Urban Future
As has been the case throughout history, cities will recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the nature of that recovery will depend on the creativity and ambition of local governments, community leaders, and regular citizens. While expansion of NMT systems has been a meaningful, albeit temporary, solution to better control the COVID-19 outbreak, local authorities still have time to reimagine their cities and implement policies that put people and planet first. Innovations in urban transport and mobility systems, coupled with an expansion of public transport services, could save the world from the worst impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.
While internal combustion engine-powered vehicles continue to play an outsized role in the planning of city streets, the mindset that gave life to tactical urbanism measures that prioritise walking, cycling, and liberated streets, can be scaled up, precipitating a global urban rebirth that finally frees our cities from outdated, car-obsessed design. COVID-19 is certainly an epic tragedy, but there is no reason why this tragedy cannot become the starting point for triumph – especially for cities.