How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the face of transportation in cities

Amid a plunge in traffic, many cities have implemented actions to help critical workers get to where they need to be more quickly and also help people move around safely.

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A number of cities around the country–and around the world—have taken measures to help make movement easier for critical workers, such as creating new bike lanes, retooling traffic signals, suspending transit fares, and closing some streets to vehicle traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Whether it's creating bike lanes so nurses and doctors can move that way or residents can get to grocery stores, there's a holistic shift in how to move around," said Brenna Rivett, program manager of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. "A lot of that has been driven by the decrease in public transit."

The NLC has received a lot of reports about the decline in overall city traffic and how cities are streamlining their transit operations, added Brittney Kohler, legislative director of transportation and infrastructure. "There's a lot to be said for the emergency protocols cities have put in place and what's that's doing to bend the curve" in the numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19, she said.

Cities including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston and Oakland,Calif., have closed streets to motor traffic.

Oakland opted to close about 10% of its city's streets to through traffic "to create wide spaces for people to jog and walk safely," Rivett said. "They did a lot of research to make sure their emergency vehicles can still use (those streets), so they've done a good job balancing the need for fresh air and making sure people can still get to work."

In Detroit, city officials had to change some of their bus routes due to the decline in ridership, so they've made sure bikes and scooters can still be used so people can get where they need to, she said. "They're already part of the landscape, but in some situations, buses are being used less frequently, so they're trying to be nimble to make sure if one option isn't available another is," Rivett said.

These actions have served a twofold purpose because they have gone beyond making it easier for critical workers to move freely, said Bob Bennett, CEO of B2 Civic Solutions, a consultancy to cities, and chair of the London-based think tank, Cities Today Institute.

Especially for people living in dense urban areas, these measures are also meeting the desire to get out to walk while maintaining appropriate social distance, said Bennett, who is also the former director of innovation for the city of Kansas City, MO.

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Walking has "become a coping mechanism and is so severely limited (city officials) had to repurpose roads to free up that space," he said.

In addition, "some more forward-thinking mayors are using this crisis as an opportunity to implement changes that would cause disruption if there was a lot of traffic," and it wouldn't be a feasible time to create bike lanes, make repairs, and do other initiatives, Bennett said.

One of the most significant changes Bennett is seeing is the implementation of fare-less transportation to make it safer for bus drivers and transit riders.

Kohler agreed, saying that "There isn't a city out there that isn't asking how to protect bus drivers and what's the right thing for the next month and the next three months?" 

The NLC is providing guidance such as encouraging "low contact" on buses, she said. This includes implementing measures like "using the middle door for boarding and bypassing or skipping fares, and running large buses to keep people appropriately distanced," Kohler said.

Resources on city responses to the coronavirus

The National Association of Transportation Officials has launched the COVID-19 Transportation Response Center to be a repository of emergency responses cities around the world are taking. Some of the measures include fare suspension, passenger limits, rear-door boarding, parking ticket forgiveness, and changes to signals and crossing so people don't have to touch a button to cross an intersection, according to the center.

The NLC has developed a spreadsheet detailing local actions being taken such as closed streets to motor vehicles and fast-tracked construction of planning walking or bicycling facilities. "It creates a nice line of sight for [cities] to see what their geographic neighbors are doing or cities of different sizes," said Rivett.

Beyond transportation, The NLC has partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies on a local action tracker that also details other measures cities are taking during the pandemic.

But the ways cities are helping make movement easier continues, said Kohler. "There's still a lot we need to keep in mind and a lot we're going to need to make new decisions about,'" she said. "I'd say every city is asking what's next for them to support their operations today and in the next few months. The new normal is still being understood, and frankly, we're going to see cities have a lot of different opportunities and challenges from this."

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