Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
Traffic-free Times Square in New York City offers room for a skateboarder now. Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

Updated: May 12, 2020

The fight against coronavirus has brought cities to a standstill. With roughly one third of the global population under lockdown, vehicle traffic has all but vanished on the world’s busiest roads and highways. Public transit ridership in global metros has dropped by more than 80% since early January. For residents in one U.S. city, Seattle, the average daily travel distance has gone from the length of the Las Vegas Strip to that of a bowling alley.

But essential workers — doctors, nurses, grocers, pharmacists, delivery drivers, and others — are still commuting, and homebound folks must still make trips for survival goods. Now local governments are taking action to help that critical movement happen more easily: They’re striping new bike lanes, retooling traffic signals, suspending transit fares, closing some streets to vehicle traffic, and taking other temporary transportation measures. CityLab has mapped some of the changes happening on city streets in the U.S. and around the world as of April 3, using data from the National Association of Transportation Officials’s Covid-19 Transportation Response Center, a newly launched repository of emergency responses.

(Marie Patino/CityLab)

Some of the measures are as simple as flipping a switch: Perth, Australia, Auckland, New Zealand, and Boston, Massachusetts are among the global cities that have automated crossing signals so that pedestrians don’t have to touch “beg buttons” that may be contaminated.

Other changes are technically easy, though they may be harder for comptrollers to swallow as government revenue tanks with local economies: At least 50 cities, including Los Angeles and Detroit, have suspended bus fares. At least ten, including London and Glasgow, have made bikeshare systems free, and at least a dozen (not on the map) have lifted parking fees and enforcement.

(Marie Patino/CityLab)

A few large cities, with established communities of pedestrian and cyclist advocates, have taken more drastic actions. At least seven U.S. and Canadian cities, including Portland, Minneapolis, and Calgary,* have temporarily stopped or limited access to vehicles on certain corridors in order to help walking, biking, and outdoor respite-taking happen in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Bogotá, Mexico City, and Berlin have all expanded cycling networks to make way for bikes, which have emerged as the non-car mode of choice in a time of social distance. Around the world, calls to increase urban sidewalk space to allow for safer pedestrian use are getting louder.

Local governments and transportation agencies are responding as they see fit in an unprecedented situation, said Janette Sadik-Khan, the chair of the board of directors at NACTO and a principal at Bloomberg Associates. (Disclosure: Bloomberg LP is CityLab’s parent company.) In many places, officials are still fearful of creating opportunities or appearing to encourage residents to touch shared bike handles or share space with bus riders, and in many more, removing traffic lanes to make way for people is as politically toxic as ever. “There’s no playbook for this,” she said. “Mayors are really wrestling with this stuff.”

But several of these measures — free transit fares, car-free streets — have been championed for years by urban sustainability advocates as measures to reduce vehicle congestion, traffic fatalities, and carbon emissions. Sadik-Khan hopes that some of these Covid-19 emergency actions could serve as testing grounds for more lasting change, and that in a few cases, cities could make them permanent.

Other are less optimistic about the longer-term prospects of car-free transportation, especially public transit. In the U.S., Congress has made $25 billion available as emergency funding for transit agencies struggling to keep operations afloat, but many experts say it’s not enough to prevent service cuts and lay-offs in the future.

Some researchers speculate that coronavirus will deliver a lasting blow to transit ridership (which was already in decline), and to urban density itself. That’s 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. “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 Tabitha Combs, a sustainable transportation scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been compiling her own database of worldwide transportation responses to coronavirus.

Short-term, however, the demand for reliable transportation remains among people on the front lines of the pandemic. Driving is easy; the streets are empty. But many workers stocking supermarket shelves, sanitizing intensive care units, delivering meals and performing other essential duties may not own personal vehicles. Cities should look to one another for examples of how to make getting around easier for those critical members of society, Sadik-Khan said. She added: “Not all heroes drive to work.”

*Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Vancouver was among the cities that have implemented an emergency pedestrian street. So far, the policy has been debated but not implemented there.

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