London mayor Sadiq Khan's announcement of a "green" Covid-19 recovery through one of the world's largest car-free zone initiatives may be a sign of things to come as cities are reimagined post-pandemic.
Announcing the "Streetspace" initiative as part of lockdown easing measures, Khan said parts of central London would be declared car-free, with some streets converted to walking and cycling only, and others restricted to all traffic apart from buses.
The plan is designed to enable safe social distancing on public transport, increased walking and cycling, as well as improve the city’s air quality.
“If we want to make transport in London safe, and keep London globally competitive, then we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people.
"By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another," Khan said, acknowledging that the changes would mean "a fundamental reimagining how we live our lives in this city".
Measures announced as part of the London initiative include widening pavements on main streets in town centres to give space for queues outside shops and the creation of low-traffic corridors across the city so people can walk and cycle as part of their daily routine and the rapid construction of a "strategic" cycling network using temporary materials and including new routes.
The phenomenon of pop-up bike lanes is symbolic of the type of "tactical urbanism" occurring across the globe in response to the pandemic, where cheap (normally temporary) changes are made to urban areas in order to improve neighbourhoods, with New Zealand leading the way to enshrining it in legislation.
In Australia, reducing the emphasis on cars and making more room for people to walk and cycle are just some of the ways our city streets could change for the better in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
UNSW Built Environment lecturer Dr Mike Harris says the coronavirus is exposing problems with our vehicle-dominated street designs that existed long before the pandemic.
“It’s showing the disproportionate amount of street space dedicated to cars, because all that space set aside for cars is now sitting idle, while our footpaths aren’t wide enough for people walking, especially under social distancing guidelines,” the landscape architect and urban designer said.
With people using their local streets more because they’re working from home, there's a growing awareness of the need for better quality streets for our quality of life.
Harris said that in Sydney, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the importance of immediately accessible open space and walking and cycling facilities that many parts of the city lack.
“One of the arguments behind widening footpaths is so you can have space to pass people more easily, and with social distancing, it’s really shown just how narrow common footpath widths are.”
“Even in our densest areas, many are about one and a half metres wide, next to an expanse of asphalt for cars.
“Footpaths should arguably be at least double that width," Harris said, adding that this is even before the addition of planting, trees, seating and bike lanes.
“There is so much that streets can do but are often so limited from all the space excised to move and store cars—it’s remarkably short-sighted when you think about it.”
Of the short-term streetscape adaptation being undertaken in cities around the world to allow for better pedestrian and cycling amenity, Harris says most cities were already moving in this direction.
"Like many trends, Covid-19 is increasing the speed of how these things get implemented.
“Everyone is getting a forced test run to trial these pop-up things, so it means that all of a sudden, everyone’s getting exposed to what our streets could be like.”
Harris said that this ‘forced experiment’ could be the catalyst for transitioning towards pedestrian-friendly streets on a more permanent basis.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of people to consider riding a bike, at least for some trips or part of their trip, and a portion of them will want to keep doing it, but as is the case now most of those people will claim they want to, but can’t because there are not enough facilities,” Harris said.
Investing—as is happening in London—in a greater number of smaller, easily delivered projects like cycleways, which have more local job creation options and fewer financial and environmental costs, could be the way forward.
Harris says that while reverting back to the vehicle-dominated streets would be easy, the rare opportunity to make our streets more liveable shouldn’t be squandered.
Just a few weeks ago, Beijing and Shenzen reported heavier peak-hour congestion than the same period last year, and Harris warns that the ‘images of blue skies without air pollution’ may become a memory.
“What will need to happen is for the government to take the opportunity, while it’s there, to make some real changes," Harris said, pointing to the history of open space being used and transformed in response to public health crises.
"Planning for New York's Central Park began in the immediate aftermath of New York's second cholera outbreak in the mid-1800s, along with wider urban boulevards.
“One of the reasons cities in the Netherlands or Denmark are so pedestrian-friendly, cycling-friendly cities today is because the government made concerted decisions to rely less on cars after the 1970s oil crisis—they recognised it was a vulnerable and costly transport mode and made a series of policy decisions and planning changes, that a couple of decades later, you see these profound results of very healthy, engaging, prosperous, people-friendly cities.
“What smart cities will do is make use of this opportunity and enact intelligent decisions that in 20 years will make their cities better quality places to live and work.”
Hero image: London's Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has announced the city will embark on one of the world's largest car-free zone initiatives as part of the easing of coronavirus restrictions.