Covid 19 – Response – Luuk Van Kessel

Luuk is a Senior Transport Planner and a member of the Transport Planning Society

Opportunities in Crisis Management: Reclaiming street space for people. 

Whilst the Covid-19 crisis presents us with a host of challenges and issues, there are also plenty of opportunities out there. One of the movements that is quickly gaining traction around the globe is to close down streets to everything but local and emergency traffic, in order to give people more space.  Indeed, currently it can get very difficult to maintain the 2m distance as required by the Government. Narrow pavements, towpaths or roads that are dominated by (parked) vehicles can make it virtually impossible to adhere to the new regulations. I myself made the mistake of going on a bike ride along Regent’s Canal in London, but on the narrow towpath and under the small bridges, I experienced first-hand how different it is impossible to abide by the new social distancing norms.  

In cities, the only places where people can freely move about and exercise are typically in parks and green spaces. Where green space is scarce, the pavement and street are the only real alternatives. However, managing crowds in parks can be difficult, especially enforcing the new social distancing rules of the global pandemic. Already in London, Tower Hamlets and the Met have come under intense scrutiny when it was announced that Victoria Park was closed to all visitors. This episode culminated with a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman and the subsequent reopening of Victoria Park right before the Easter Weekend (except for cyclists). As a result of these difficulties, an increasing number of towns and cities across the world have started to look at if reallocating street space to pedestrians and cyclists is a good alternative.

CityLab has done a great piece of work mapping out which cities across the world are adopting measures in response to Covid-19 such as street closures, fare suspensions or temporary bike lanes. As ideas like emergency street closures are spreading across the globe, there is no doubt that the maps in the article will need to be updated soon. 

One of the newer entrants to this growing movement of reallocating street space to people is Oakland, California. In a planreleased by the Oakland Department of Transport a number of streets will be closed down as a response to the Covid-19 crisis. The plan details dozens of streets that could be closed, with a total length up to length up to an astonishing 74 miles. From Saturday the 11th of April, the first 4 street segments have closed as a trial. 

Oakland’s plan will close street segments to through traffic, provides signage and barricades at key junctions, and frees up space to promote physical exercise. There are measures in place to allow local traffic to access the streets and emergency vehicles or buses are still able to pass through. Oakland is definitely not the only city to propose such measures, with examples ranging from Bogotá to Berlin. 

The movement to reallocate space on streets to provide more space to people is also taking root in London. Jon Burke, the Lead Councillor for Transport in Hackney, has asked on Twitter for people to suggest which roads should be closed to through traffic (other than emergency services). TfL and the Mayor of London are also looking into where on the network they can give pedestrians more space.

I’m excited to see how these plans will progress, and hope to revisit the subject in a future blog. I can think of a few places where the pavement can be so narrow, that social distancing is simply not possible. It will need to be investigated how these changes can be enacted, and how to best facilitate people to observe the 2m social distancing rules. Nevertheless, it is exciting to see that this global movement has landed in Britain. Hopefully, more Local Authorities and their leaders will explore these ideas to see how they can improve people’s lives in times of this global pandemic. Maybe it can be a start of a better future.

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