As cities adapt to cope with COVID-19, they’re left with a historic choice: go green, or face more cars than ever.
The breath of fresh air that drifted through our streets during COVID-19 lockdown is already giving way to some familiar fumes. Welcome to the post-pandemic era — where predictions that months of car-free cities would barely impact 2020’s total carbon emissions are looking grimly inevitable.
But sustainability is a long-term game. And if we look at the bigger picture, there are reasons for optimism. A combination of new norms around social distancing, links between COVID-19 deaths and inner-city air pollution, and a taste of city life without cars has revealed that an unprecedented transformation of urban space is badly needed.
A return to crowded pavements and packed buses is not an option. The question is: how will cities adapt to let people safely get from A to B?
From pop-up cycle lanes in Bogota to car-free streets in Seattle, we’ve already seen a range of smart and creative ways to meet the new need for social distancing. But as short-term solutions continue to be rolled out, two diverging visions of the long-term future are emerging.
The best case scenario is that a wave of public investment — combined with the promotion of sustainability-driven private companies — transforms our cities into largely car-free zones. Space for walking and cycling is increased, and shared fleets of light electric vehicles take some of the burden off buses and trains. Air is cleaner, traffic is reduced, and trips are faster.
On the other hand, surveys show that demand for cars is on the rise as people fear for their personal space. With public transport struggling to handle social distancing, there’s a real danger that cities could become even more car-centric and congested than ever due to COVID-19.
It’s too early to say for sure what will happen next. But we can get some ideas by delving into some of the current urban social distancing measures — and asking experts what they think of them.
Cities all over the world have already taken unprecedented steps to open up public space for outdoor social distancing. Milan and Paris have reserved large areas for pedestrians and cyclists, while Mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines when he announced 40 miles of closed streets in New York.
Will these measures pave the way for a permanent restructure of urban space away from cars? It depends who you ask — and which city you ask about.
Some US cities have adopted European-style measures for cyclists.
Mobility-Urban Planner at Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona, Javier Ortigosa, thinks that the challenge of social distancing will have a positive long-term impact on his city: “The recovery of space, giving more priority to buses, bikes, and micro-mobility — we were considering these things already. In a way COVID-19 could help accelerate those changes, as it has increased people’s awareness of these issues.”
Ortigosa points to Paris as another example of a city that could benefit. Its campaign to become a “15-minute city” by creating more space for bikes and micro-mobility launched just before the pandemic, but Ortigosa believes that “COVID-19 has given it more importance.”
Tabitha Combs, Lecturer in City & Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina
In the US, Lecturer in City & Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Tabitha Combs, agrees that the pandemic is “adding more fuel to the fire” for existing pedestrian and bike space initiatives. But for most US cities that don’t have any solid plans to promote sustainable mobility, she’s less optimistic:
“Our planning models are very car-centric in the US. And those models aren’t changing because of COVID. Any changes we see will happen at the margins.”
However, there are exceptions. Combs highlights a few notable plans to limit cars in US cities that’ll extend beyond COVID-19: “Some cities have their own revenue streams so they control their roads internally, and they’re making pretty big strides — Oakland, for example.”
And while most US urban space initiatives Combs has seen are “probably temporary,” many cities will be monitoring the impacts to see if changes could be made permanent: “Seattle moved very quickly to declare that their actions would be permanent. I think a lot of cities are taking a much slower approach.”
Permanent or not, space for bikes and pedestrians has opened up with impressive speed across the world. Where plans for such initiatives already existed, COVID-19 recovery measures could provide a welcome boost.
But some of the problems caused by COVID-19 are much more complex to solve.
There’s no simple way to make trains and buses compatible with social distancing. Cities like London that rely heavily on public transport are bracing themselves for life with “dramatically reduced” services. For London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the dilemma is clear: help Londoners “switch to cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport,” or risk a surge in car congestion.
Taking pressure off trains and buses by encouraging people to use green alternatives is vital in the short term. But it’s unclear how long public transport companies can balance the books while running at reduced capacity.
Stephan Brode, Chief Digital Officer at Swiss public transport operator BLT, fears that demand for buses and trams may never return to pre-crisis levels: “Once people have either bought a car or got used to affordable alternative options, like cycling or shared mobility, they might not switch back.”
Brode sees shared networks of light electric vehicles — like Basel’s Pick-e-Bike — as an increasingly vital part of public transport networks from now on.
Basel’s Pick-e-Bike is an example of how public transport can diversify to facilitate social distancing.
Nonetheless, Ortigosa believes there is “no other option” than for traditional forms of public transport to play a key role in cities’ recovery from COVID-19. He thinks with the right approach, buses can bounce back:
“In Spanish, we say, ‘if you don’t like soup, then here are two bowls.’ The way to solve issues with public transport is more public transport.”
With more priority for buses at traffic lights, measures to decrease car traffic, and overall demand for mobility unlikely to fully return to pre-crisis levels, Ortigosa argues that buses could become twice as frequent without adding more vehicles: “Traffic is a non-linear phenomenon. Sometimes it’s just about lowering traffic by 10–20%, then buses can flow.”
Creative solutions like these could provide a light at the end of the tunnel for public transport. But Combs warns that any recovery won’t come cheap: “It’s going to take a lot of investment in public transport to keep it alive right now.”
And this highlights a bigger question.
Whether it’s re-allocating space for bicycles or optimizing public transport, a green post-pandemic recovery would require serious funding. As experts have pointed out, if the economic crisis that follows COVID-19 resembles previous economic crises, the opposite is likely to happen.
But could this time be different?
The EU recently announced a €750billion fund dedicated to green initiatives in the wake of COVID-19. Combs sees this as a concrete positive step: “In Europe, the fact that there’s money on the table and that cities are already thinking about how to monitor the impacts is incredibly hopeful.”
Javier Ortigosa, Mobility-Urban Planner at Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona
It’s also important to realize that sweeping environmental programs and clean air policies are two different things. Ortigosa sees the goal of cutting city air pollution as more tangible — and therefore more likely to get government buy-in — than loftier environmental initiatives:
“The problems of urban space and mobility aren’t just about being ecological — they’re also about quality of life and health.”
He compares people’s awareness about the danger of air pollution to how public attitudes shifted towards smoking: “At some point, people considered that it was unhealthy and that measures were needed to stop it. I think this is happening with cars and traffic.”
This realisation has already happened in some places. From 2013–2019, China implemented its “toughest ever clean air policy” to tackle the health crisis caused by urban pollution. In six years, they succeeded in cutting air pollution by 12%. The German high court has also just ruled that cities can choose to completely ban diesel cars to protect air quality.
Will we look back on scenes like this in the way that we now view smoking in restaurants or aeroplanes?
COVID-19 has reignited debates around public space and air pollution in an unprecedented way. The huge global upheaval of cities shows what can be achieved in a short period of time when the world is faced with a public health crisis.
So while distant goals like cutting CO2 emissions by 2035 can seem too vague and abstract to draw solid investment, real progress could be made towards cutting urban air pollution if we frame discussion around what it is: another public health crisis.