photo: A lone cyclist passes along the banks of the Navigli canal system in Milan. The city is now cautiously exploring how to safely reopen.
A lone cyclist passes along the banks of the Navigli canal system in Milan. The city is now cautiously exploring how to safely reopen. Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg

Hard-hit Milan may be leading the way in reimagining how transit and commuting patterns could change as cities emerge from coronavirus shutdowns.

How will cities carefully emerge from their coronavirus quarantines once lockdown measures are relaxed? That question might seem premature in the U.S., but in places where the virus struck earlier, cities are working out strategies for a return to something approaching normal urban life.

Italy appears to have passed its mortality peak —  at least for Covid-19’s first wave — and now leaders in Milan and other major urban centers are looking at how people might resume working, socializing and leaving their homes even as coronavirus still remains active. Their answers could well provide an international blueprint for reopened cities.

First off, Italian city governments are concluding, transit habits will need to change. 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. Accordingly, says Milan Mayor Beppe Sala, the city plans to maintain its metro system’s capacity at less than two-thirds of its pre-pandemic activity. Instead of the 1.4 million average trips it saw daily before the pandemic, it will accommodate a maximum daily ridership of 400,000.

To assist this, the floors of metro cars and buses will be marked out with circles showing passengers the right level of distance to maintain. If the system looks like it will exceed the passenger numbers that makes this level of distancing possible, station entrances will be temporarily closed until congestion eases.

But the metro makeover is only one part of what looks like a more dramatic reimagining of the Milanese calendar: The city’s work, school, and daily life patterns are being redrawn to accommodate the need to flatten peaks in transit use. Those who can work from home would continue to do so, while others, such as shop workers and students, should be given some flexibility in their routine. The city will encourage stores to stay open throughout the evening and the start of the school day will be staggered, with different classes starting at various points between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. To help students catch up with missed classes, meanwhile, the city also wants to set up summer schools over the long break, which normally starts in the second week of June and continues until September.

Milan is also joining many other European cities in using the coronavirus crisis to reevaluate its relationship with automobiles, which threaten to become a more popular post-pandemic commuting mode when transit-anxious workers venture back to the office. But with 55% of Milanese using public transit daily before the pandemic, the city — like many in Europe —  simply doesn’t have enough vehicles or parking spots to switch over from relying on trains and buses to relying on private cars. Nor does it want to try: There is already an alarming pattern of correlation between high air pollution and high mortality rates for Covid-19, and Northern Italy has some of the nation’s worst air quality. Cities still battling a disease that frequently attacks the lungs will be reluctant to rely on a transit mode that does so much damage to air quality.

As a result, Milan is going big on cycling and walking. Over the summer, the city core will be partly remodeled to give over 22 miles (35 kilometers) of road space previously used by cars to bikes and pedestrians. Those cars that are allowed into the center must adhere to a new reduced 30 kilometers per hour speed limit. The aim is to make traffic more fluid and give pedestrians more space to spread out safely.

Milan may be ahead of the curve, but it is far from the only European city considering similar car-mitigation measures. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi also wants to encourage more active travel and open summer schools, while boroughs in Berlin are also reclaiming road space to make into wider bike lanes. Brussels has gone yet further. 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 kph and must give way in the roads to people on foot or on bikes. This comes on top of an ongoing pedestrianization plan designed to make Brussels’ core a more attractive place for people on foot.

In Paris, meanwhile, that city’s campaign against private cars will get a fresh boost: As well as expanding the width of existing cycle lanes, Paris and the Île-de-France region are fast-tracking a temporary version of its planned new network of nine long-distance cycleways in response to the pandemic. Linking the inner city with the suburbs, the first stretches of this new network will open in May.

It’s not clear if all these measures will be retained once the threat of coronavirus has receded, but they’re nonetheless highly significant. It is not just that they reflect innovative ways to maintain social distancing in cities that have gone back to work: They also emphasize the way the wind is blowing. Before Covid-19 swept the globe, many European cities were reducing the space and access they allotted to cars, improving their cycling infrastructure, and enlarging sidewalks to fit more people on foot. If such changes can also work to keep cities functioning after lockdowns cease, they could show that pro-pedestrian policies were not urbanist fantasies, but durable, practical ways to build a livable post-pandemic urban future. That’s something cities around with world will need to achieve.

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