How COVID-19 is changing the shape of our cities

A family walking and biking on an Oakland "slow street" and wearing face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo source: City of Oakland)
A family walking and biking on an Oakland "slow street" and wearing face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo source: City of Oakland)

Social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is more difficult in crowded urban spaces.

These include sidewalks, where people are forced to congregate while carrying out essential tasks such as heading to the grocery, lining up for a clinic appointment, or just getting some necessary exercise.

It’s a vexing problem, but urban officials the world over are looking to relieve that crowding by moving pedestrians and others off the sidewalk and onto the street, by banning cars.

Four wheels bad, two feet good

This has been easier than expected given the drastic reduction worldwide in motor-vehicle traffic. 

With disappearing traffic in major urban areas, forward-thinking planners from Bogota to Calgary to Denver and elsewhere are moving rapidly to create more spaces for bike riders and pedestrians, while making public transit more accessible for essential workers.

CityLab has mapped the innovations in dozens of American cities over the last few weeks, including:

• Fare suspensions on public transit
• Temporary bike lanes
• Free bikeshares
• Automated pedestrian crossings that prevent the spread of COVID-19 by enabling people to avoid pressing potentially contaminated “walk” buttons

And then there are the street closures.

While a program to close streets in New York City did not last, other cities hope the changes will become permanent.

74 miles in Oakland

Oakland, California, has pioneered one of these major change, with restrictions on motor vehicles on a tenth of its streets.

The “Oakland Slow Streets” initiative has temporarily opened up around 74 miles of the city’s roads to pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users and others.

The idea is to get people off the crowded sidewalks, enabling them to get exercise and time outdoors, while still maintaining the kind of social distance that can decrease transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One city over — due west of Oakland across the San Francisco Bay — service providers in San Francisco’s densely populated, lower-income Tenderloin neighborhood seek a similar innovation.

According to a report in the San Francisco Public Press:

“Soup kitchens and homeless service centers are pushing San Francisco officials to shut down a Tenderloin street to through traffic so their clients can maintain social distance from one another as lines wrap around the block and tent dwellers crowd the sidewalks.”

Born to walk

For many, it took a pandemic to remind us of the physiological necessity of walking.

We evolved to walk upright, says Shane O’Mara, a brain researcher in Dublin, Ireland, it’s healthy for us to do so.

Now that we’ve had most of our other options for transportation and sport curtailed or removed altogether, he many of us are returning to walking to get exercise.

According to O’Mara, walking also produces a variety of positive health effects, from helping restore body tissues to stimulating thought and imagination.

And, even in these times of social distancing, walking can be a profoundly social activity, putting you in proximity with your fellow humans in a ways that sitting in a car with the windows rolled up will never do.

Sources: CityLab, Wired, SFist, San Francisco Public Press, Wall Street Journal

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