How COVID-19 is Changing Urban Transportation

The past week should be a stark wake-up call for every transportation professional. Streets that were jammed with cars just two weeks ago now sit empty as people respond to growing warnings and restrictions from governments to stay home and avoid non-essential trips.

Signals change from green to red and back, directing nothing but tumbleweeds. Buses run near-empty. With one big pandemic-sized shock to the system, the face of urban transportation has drastically changed.

Traffic congestion has vanished

From a transportation perspective, the biggest change has been a plummet in travel demand. People are working from home and avoiding non-essential trips. Weekly bowling night is cancelled, dinner with the in-laws is postponed, and the book-club meet-up is now over a video chat. In other words, people aren’t going anywhere. Their cars are staying in their garages. They’re not hopping on commuter trains and buses. The traditional morning and afternoon transportation “peaks” that we’ve been designing our networks for for decades have vanished.

Urban roadway networks are designed accommodate people’s need to move around. Naturally, the standard business day leads to peaks in travel volumes in the morning (7-9AM or so) and evening (4-6PM). Outside of these peak periods, people still travel but typically not as much. In turn, we’ve designed the capacity of our road networks to handle these peaks.

With the arrival of a pandemic of course, all bets are off. The massive drop in travel demand has virtually eliminated traffic congestion at all times of day, including the daily peaks in cities around the globe.

People are still walking and cycling

We are all still humans of course, and we need fresh air and exercise. Children need to run and play, parents need to stretch. People teleworking in their cozy apartments (myself included) need a change of scenery. These mobility needs aren’t served by cars and highways and trains and buses. They’re served by sidewalks, bicycle paths, trails, and parks. And more than ever, these pieces of infrastructure are becoming cities’ greatest assets. While adjacent roads sit empty, pathways are full of people.

To an active transportation professional, this is a great success, but it is also a problem. Spatial distancing recommends that people stay a comfortable two metres from each other to avoid spreading the virus. But how does one do this on a a standard 1.5-metre sidewalk? Even a three-metre trail is insufficient. So people walk on the grass, or on the street.

To address this, a growing movement has quickly arisen to turn over some of the now-empty street space from cars to people. The right-of-way to do this exists, and in many cases, it requires little more than signs and construction pylons.

The city of Bogotá has been one of the first out of the gates, turning over hundreds of kilometres of car space to people walking and cycling in an effort to increase public space, reduce transit overcrowding, and reduce air pollution.

Virtual is replacing physical

Teleworking, or work-from-home, has long been promoted as a means to reduce the burden on our transportation system and offer people more work-life balance. But until two weeks ago, shifting the world to teleworking seemed unimaginable, and even laughable. Though progressive companies provided teleworking options for their staff, by and large, office workers were expected to go to those offices each and every day.

Well teleworking has been thrust upon the working world like a ton of bricks, and is quickly proving the unimaginable to be very possible. Suddenly, videoconferencing doesn’t seem like a chore, but rather a feat of humanity and a welcomed social break from the solitude of one’s living room. Public meetings, events, and even conferences are moving online, with all sorts of new and innovative approaches like live polling. We might still say that it’s just not the same as physically being there, but it’s also not proving to be all that much of a compromise.

We are living in an unprecedented time in history for urban transportation. Demand for automobile travel has plummeted as teleworking skyrockets, while walking, running, and cycling have become more important than ever. The opportunity is ripe for creatively re-purposing streets to give car space back to people, at least temporarily.

But thinking forward, what will we learn from these times, and how will the face of transportation change once the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled and social distancing measures are softened?

Maybe we’ll realize the ease of teleworking and promote it as a means of easing traffic congestion. Maybe we’ll come to enjoy the peace and quiet that accompanies car-free streets. Maybe we’ll become aware of the massive amount of public space we’ve dedicated to private automobile travel, and maybe we’ll think more about handing some of that space back to people.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll realize that the future of urban transportation is one with significantly less cars.

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