Over the past months, one thing has become very obvious to anyone living in an urban area. The space freed up by the absence of private cars during lockdown starkly exposed the extent to which cities are designed to facilitate their use. In just a few weeks, cars became a rarity and the number of people walking in the streets sharply increased. But the rise in pedestrian traffic wasn’t without consequences. Pavements became overcrowded, making it difficult to comply with physical distancing guidelines. Cities had no choice but to adapt – and fast.
Leveraging the flexibility of tactical urbanism
Some cities, including Ottawa and Milan, extended pavements onto the road using traffic cones, while others, such as Amsterdam, introduced one-way circulation for pedestrians. In Mexico City, Bogotá, Berlin and Budapest, road barriers were simply used to close off certain streets to cars.
The success of these initiatives was instant, paving the way for the development of “tactical urbanism”. This relatively recent approach enables cities to make temporary changes to the layout of a street or other public space using materials that are easy to move. It’s quick, practical and inexpensive. “Cities copied each other, drawing inspiration from the best practices developed elsewhere,” says Sonia Lavadinho, a researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. “Oakland, California, for example, was one of the first cities to close off part of its road network – 10 km, to be exact – for the exclusive use of pedestrians and cyclists.” Other cities followed suit, including Paris, which closed some of its most beautiful avenues, but also Calgary, Denver, Cologne and New York. In May, in the middle of lockdown, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to dedicate 65 km of the city’s streets to pedestrians and cyclists, with an ultimate objective of 160 km.
Taking back the streets
The changes made so far are temporary and can easily be reversed. But what will happen after Covid-19? Will cities make good use of their experience in active mobility and implement long-term changes to the urban layout that benefit pedestrians? Will they dare to take back the space given over to cars for so long?
Some cities were already heading in that direction well before the outbreak of Covid-19. In these cities, pedestrians are seen as key Stakeholders in the mobility network.
Oslo, Barcelona, Bilbao, Pontevedra, (see article in Pulse #4), Copenhagen and many others have all become “walkable cities”.
Developed in North America about 20 years ago, the concept of walkability reflects a radical shift in attitude. “For certain cities, walking is now a mode of transport like any other,” says Bronwen Thornton, CEO of Walk21. Often spurred into action by signs that the current system isn’t working (too many cars, accidents, public health issues; too much pollution; not enough space for pedestrians, etc.), these cities have decided to rethink their mobility strategy. Against a backdrop of continued urbanisation, they’ve decided to dedicate more space to active mobility solutions and less to car.
Because it’s good for our health and well-being
“These cities have chosen to stop sacrificing their residents’ health and wellbeing; they’ve decided to challenge the dominance of cars,” says Bronwen Thornton. “I often cite Barcelona’s ‘superblocks’ as a highly successful example of how public space can be divided up in a way that puts communities before cars. By imposing super-low speed limits and minimising the space allocated to motor vehicles, ‘superblocks’ discourage road traffic, while enabling pedestrians to enjoy the benefits of a leafy environment, wider pavements, functional street furniture and intersections that have been transformed into public squares.”
Obviously, the issue isn’t the same in Asia or Africa, where people primarily walk out of necessity. “In Hong Kong, for example, 94% of the population walks simply because it’s the most practical mode of transport available – and the most enjoyable,” explains Thornton, adding, “Walking isn’t always a conscious choice”. But everywhere else, across Europe, and Latin America, the walking trend is catching on, partly because it fits with a healthier vision of our society, but also because it meets an urgent need to decongest our cities. “Walking is an active mobility solution that is both enjoyable and extremely beneficial for our mental and physical health,” says Sonia Lavadinho. It also enables us to “reconnect with our origins,” she adds. “Let’s not forget we have two legs for a reason.”
Key success factors for walkability
“But it’s actually not that easy to make a city walkable,” warns Lavadinho. “Implementing
the necessary practical measures isn’t enough to make it work.” The success of a new urban planning policy depends first and foremost on the buy-in and commitment of transport authorities and elected officials. “Without the political will, it just won’t happen.” The researcher also highlights the importance of taking a joined-up approach that encompasses the city as a whole, rather than a single neighbourhood. “When a particular mode of transport is given more space, it automatically fills up that space,” explains Lavadinho. “It’s true for cars, and it’s the same for soft and active mobility solutions. A well-developed walking network is essential. By providing more paths and making sure they interconnect and serve strategic locations, you automatically encourage people to walk more.”
A shift in perceptions of time and space
Walking is often seen as unproductive or even a waste of time, so changing people’s perceptions is also an important part of the process. For Sonia Lavadinho, who recently advised the Paris authorities on its pedestrian streets, the key is to think in terms of time, rather than distance. “Five kilometres, for example, seems like a long way,” she points out. “And that can turn people off. But if you emphasise the time the journey takes, rather than the distance, you get a completely different reaction. Time provides structure to our lives. Why not use it as a unit of measurement?”
In cities, half of all journeys made are less than 3 km, so there’s clearly an opportunity for change. Bronwen Thornton agrees: “It generally takes people two to three months to adjust to something new. But the period we’ve just been through has given us the time to make that change. It’s the perfect opportunity.” When you look at the initiatives chronicled by Walk21, it’s clear that numerous cities are starting small. “That’s okay,” says Thornton. “They need time to come to grips with the idea of a dramatic shift in behaviour. Because habits are the hardest thing to change.”
That said, people in many cities are already speaking out against a return to the way things were. Walking has become a part of their daily routine. In Paris, 75% of the population is in favour of adapting the division of public space to provide more room for pedestrians (73%) and for cyclists (63%).
Density, pollution, congestion – the pandemic has brought the many contradictions cities face into sharp focus. “The changes under way around the world today represent an extraordinary opportunity,” says Sonia Lavadinho. To enable physical distancing, many cities are experimenting with new ideas. “Solutions are being tested, rejected and adjusted, creating a very positive dynamic that could give walking a real boost.” Many cities started talking about change as early as June and even prompted certain governments into action. But will they be able to maintain these initiatives over the long term? One thing is certain. Whether the initiatives carried out are success stories or not, they’ll need to be evaluated carefully. “If we don’t measure, we don’t learn,” says Lavadinho. “Tangible results will provide proof that can help us persuade cities to shift towards a car-free mobility system.” As Bronwen Thornton points out, we’ll soon know whether or not the pandemic has really helped promote urban walking. “But I’m optimistic,” she says. “There’s just so much to gain.”