We cross over to pass around each other, or tuck ourselves between cars to let a family through. We have developed a subtle form of signalling, a tilt of the head to declare that I will cede this space to you, and hopefully we will both be safe. Mask wearers look at us bare-facers with narrow eyes, passing with an excessively wide berth. My neighbours are displeased to have been cast in this new ballet of the sidewalk, not having auditioned. “We’re always looking to see who will cross over, or where we can get past, it’s exhausting!” There’s only so much a makeshift etiquette can do to overcome these stresses. There simply isn’t enough room. How might we redesign the street to keep us safe and sane in the post-pandemic world?
Urbanists and city-makers have been screaming “Widen the footpaths, build more bike lanes!” for decades, believing that the future of the city lies with the pedal and the foot, not with the car. Previously, these calls have been largely ignored, but the pandemic has seen the future they describe rushed into the present. While buses and trains seek to reduce numbers and insist passengers wear face masks, walking and cycling have emerged as the safest way to get around. Cities have announced millions in investment in new cycle lanes and wider footpaths, setting out on a radically ambitious transformation of streets.
Milan was one of the first out of the gate. As its rate of new coronavirus cases began to subside in mid-April, the city announced its Strade Aperte plan for 35km of streets to be made bike and pedestrian friendly. New cycle lanes and wider footpaths have been created using the low-cost and low-tech tools of paint and flexible bollards, as well as reduced speed limits for cars, with work due to be completed by the end of the summer. As further scientific evidence emerges of the relationship between air pollution and deaths caused by the virus, there is a great incentive to ensure these changes aren’t merely temporary. “Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before,” Milan’s deputy mayor Marco Granelli told The Guardian. The city is eager to shift people’s habits by making it easier and more convenient to walk or cycle than it is to drive – even after restrictions are lifted.
London announced plans in mid-May to ban cars on the busiest roads in the city’s financial district to help people safely return to work in the coming months. The star-shaped intersection of Cannon Street will be almost completely pedestrianised – a total transformation from the noisy car-dominated space it was at the start of the year – and a large stretch of Park Lane has already been converted into a protected cycling zone, with miles more planned across the city. Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, sees the plan as critical to increasing capacity and reducing pressure on buses and tubes. “We have no choice,” he said. “This is not ideological opportunism. This is a necessity.” Sales of bikes in the UK have risen by up to 200 per cent as key workers switch to avoid public transport and commuters begin to tentatively plan a return to the office. Could this mark the tipping point in how Londoners get around?
But no city is as ambitious about this future as Paris. The city’s transformation from car- choked to green and open has been underway for some time – the pandemic has only made these efforts appear more prescient. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has for years worked to green Paris, committing to make every street bike-friendly by 2024, and banning all combustion engine cars from the centre by 2030. This is no temporary fix. These plans are bolstered by major investment in infrastructure, with around €38bn being spent on the Grand Paris Express project, which will create 68 new metro stations, as well as plans for thousands of affordable homes, many of which are scheduled for completion in advance of the 2024 Olympic Games. As Jean-Louis Missika, the city’s deputy mayor for urbanism, is reported to have said: you can either treat the Paris accords on climate as empty virtue signalling or take them seriously. Paris intends to take them seriously.
All of this makes much social, environmental, and economic sense. I lived in the Netherlands for a number of years and can attest that life on a bike is healthy, uplifting and convenient. There’s a wonderful feeling in being part of a swarm of bikes, sweeping around a canal bend, navigating with hand gestures, and sharing someone’s slipstream as you ride into the wind. With the right infrastructure in place, this experience can be shared right across society; it need not just be the province of the young and fit. The famous Dutch Bakfiets cargo bikes are put to work like a family wagon, with two kids up front and one on the back. And no weather is too poor – I saw my elderly neighbours unlocking their bikes in the driving snow. “You just have to take it slowly round the bends,” they said to my astonishment.
This is only possible because of separated, protected cycleways that continue through most intersections, and which reach across the country. But making these kinds of changes does not come easy. The Dutch weren’t gifted their bike lanes – they were hard won in a battle against traffic planners and property developers, following a staggering number of children killed by cars in the early 1970s. There were protests across the country, creating the safe streets movement; government policies to encourage cycling; and a huge investment in infrastructure. The popularity of cycling exploded, creating a virtuous circle, as more cyclists empowered subsequent governments to invest further.
With the current pandemic, many cities, including London, are seizing upon this brief window of opportunity to make similar changes to urban streets. But there is a danger in moving too quickly. By rushing through its schemes, the city has adopted an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach, brushing aside the usual process of community consultation and engagement as it leaps to dig up the roads. This implies that the work of engaging local communities is an impediment to the delivery of projects and is merely about gathering public support to ease the passage of schemes which have already been decided. While it’s true that these processes can add time to a project – years, in some cases – they are critical for ensuring that any changes made are equitable, and that those who make the changes are accountable. In the case of London, such a process of consultation would most likely have led to a different set of proposals, and a different set of priorities. Why do the proposed cycle lanes largely serve Zone 1, for instance? Why are street closures so centred on the financial district? Who are these changes really benefitting?
These questions become all the more urgent in light of the Black Lives Matter protests that have erupted following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. What does it mean to talk about “safe streets” at a time when Black people are being attacked and killed in these same streets, by officers appointed by the city? Who are these streets “safe” for? Kristen Jeffers, founder of The Black Urbanist, a resource that centres on Black, queer, feminist, urbanist voices, is clear on this question. Speaking in an interview with StreetsBlog USA, Jeffers points out that “Our streets have never really been safe for black people,” highlighting the fact that many cities coming out of lockdown have allowed restaurants to place tables on pavements to let (predominantly white) customers socially distance, while offering no such possibility to the (predominantly Black or minority ethnic) workers in the kitchen. These workers, Jeffers notes, are “essentially [being] forced into front-line jobs. But when black people choose [to] gather to participate in political speech – even when people gather to participate in protests in support of black people – well, of course that’s still an issue. So it’s like, how do we create a system where people can choose to be on the front lines? And then, how can we create a transportation system that supports those choices?”
These are not issues that can be resolved quickly or didactically. “[Quick-build] equity won’t pull us from the grips of structural racism that got us here,” explains Destiny Thomas, an anthropologist-planner from Oakland, California, writing on Citylab in June in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. “In April, when cities offered miles of road closures as a policy response to the pandemic, many Black planners – women in particular – spoke up about the dangers of excluding entire communities from public processes, and interrogated the open streets narrative for exploiting Black, Brown and Indigenous death to justify entitlement to recreation. But we were written off as the champions of ‘the enemy of progress’ – that is, equity.” Thomas’s point is that the various issues currently facing urbanism should not be considered in isolation and that, instead, cities’ responses “to Covid-19 and civil unrest could [instead] atone for how hostile our urban spaces have been for so many.” Rather than pitting the urban responses to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests against one another, could they be two sides of the same coin?
A report by Public Health England confirmed that mortality risk among those diagnosed with Covid-19 is higher in BAME groups than white ethnic groups. While the report did not reach any definitive conclusions as to the cause of this, it did suggest that “BAME communities are likely to be at increased risk of infection. This is because BAME people are more likely to live in urban areas[...], in overcrowded households[…], in deprived areas[...], and have jobs that expose them to higher risk[...].” In other words, the risk is greater because of how underlying racial inequality is manifest in the spatial and economic structure of the city. Yet a number of scientists have argued that the report did not go far enough, criticising the authors for ignoring air pollution as a potential factor in explaining this higher risk to ethnic minorities from Covid-19. “I find it astonishing that they didn’t look at air pollution,” Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, a World Health Organisation advocate for health and air quality told The Guardian. “Some people will say air pollution in itself is racism because, yet again, it disproportionately affects black people – Covid-19 has just made it more obvious.”
These issues are deep, and they will not be solved by urban design, no matter how progressive or enlightened it is. But equally, it would be wrong to dismiss bike lanes as merely the ignorant dream of privileged urbanists. The reduction in traffic due to the coronavirus lockdown has cut nitrogen dioxide pollutionin London by close to half in some areas, with similar reductions recorded in other major cities globally. This stands to benefit all, especially those ethnic minorities who are disproportionately exposed to it. At a time when it seems fast change is possible in matters that have been traditionally slow-moving, we would be foolish to simply return to “normal”. Instead we must use this moment to question the old structures of power and oppression that have shaped our cities, and redefine a “new normal” that places the voices of communities at the centre, especially those that have been overlooked for too long.