Social distancing appears to have sparked an explosion in cycling as city residents seek alternative transportation modes to stay mobile and active.
Now, city leaders are exploring plans to make cycling safer in the short term, and maintain interest in the activity once the new coronavirus (COVID-19) subsides.
Cities including Philadelphia and Washington, DC have closed streets to vehicular traffic, a move advocates say should be retained once the worst of the pandemic is over. Meanwhile, in a global first, New Zealand is funding cities' "pop-up" bike lanes and sidewalk widening projects, which is a "no brainer" solution for any city hoping to encourage cycling and repurpose streets during the pandemic, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti recently told Smart Cities Dive.
Advocates have pondered if similar infrastructure projects — or even more permanent solutions to reimagine mobility infrastructure — could be implemented to keep the uptick in cycling ridership. This presents challenges, however, as cities grapple with limited budgets and uncertainty regarding recovery.
But as summer approaches, the cycling craze will only persist. "People are biking, and people are stir-crazy," Greg Billing, executive director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), told Smart Cities Dive.
Closing streets for bikes
Philadelphia was among the first to experiment with street closures last month when it closed off a stretch of Martin Luther King Drive, one of the city's three major thoroughfares, to vehicular traffic. Advocates of the decision said it came after an uptick of cycling in the city and worries about overcrowding on Philadelphia's trail network, which could have undermined social distancing policies.
While manual counting of cyclists was suspended due to the coronavirus, data showed that trails were becoming crowded, according to Randy LoBasso, policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. In a two-week period in early March, counters found that biking on one particular trail by the Schuylkill River was up 470% compared to the same period a year earlier, LoBasso said, giving advocates the ammunition to call for street closures.
That pop seems to have taken place elsewhere, too. On Twitter, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) said its counters showed bicycling and walking are up 72% statewide since mid-March.
MnDOT's counters show walking and bicycling up 72 percent statewide since mid-March. Drivers, remember to slow down and watch for people walking and bicycling. If you’re on a walk or bike ride, remember to keep a 6-foot space between yourself and others whenever possible. pic.twitter.com/lMvgCeo0th— Minnesota Department of Transportation (@MnDOT) April 17, 2020
"It's one thing anecdotally to say, 'Oh, it looks like there's a lot of people on the trails, we should do something about that,' but in my experience if you can go to the city with hard data, then that speaks volumes," LoBasso told Smart Cities Dive.
He said the closure is having the desired effect, according to anecdotal evidence. "If people are going to be outside and it seems like a lot of people need to get outside, we might as well give them space to be outside
"It's one thing anecdotally to say, 'Oh, it looks like there's a lot of people on the trails, we should do something about that,' but in my experience if you can go to the city with hard data, then that speaks volumes."
Policy director, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
As congestion plummets, a limited number of cities have followed Philadelphia's lead. Earlier this month, Oakland, CA took a bold step in losing 74 miles of streets to cars, for cyclists and pedestrians to use amid social distancing measures. Denver and Minneapolis have also implemented street closures.
Even the nation's capital is prioritizing this trend. In early April, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Park Police (USPP) would close sections of some streets to cars to make it easier for residents to use them for "essential exercise."
1/ Starting this week, the @NatlParkService and the United States Park Police (USPP) will close Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park and roads in Anacostia Park and Fort Dupont Park to vehicle traffic so that residents can access these roads for essential exercise.— Mayor Muriel Bowser #StayHomeDC (@MayorBowser) April 12, 2020
"The streets are the largest consumption of public space in any city in the U.S.," Kyle Wagenschutz, director of local innovation at advocacy group PeopleForBikes, told Smart Cities Dive. "The public roadway is the No. 1 space owned by the city and controlled by the city ... [They] don't have to go through a lot of hurdles to change the way streets work, and they know that people are going to be coming outside."
Challenges and opposition
While cities slowly experiment with street closures, some advocates are encouraging more accelerated efforts to spread the trend nationwide.
"I wish it was a bigger trend," League of American Bicyclists Executive Director Bill Nesper told Smart Cities Dive. "I'm hoping that it becomes a bigger one… I'm surprised it isn't being done more quickly."
But some opposition and obstacles stand in the way of making the practice mainstream. New York City, for example, experimented with an open streets policy for 11 days before Mayor Bill de Blasio said the initiative was not a "priority" and that it had to be done "the right way."
De Blasio said at the time the concept was not workable in part because it required police officers to enforce traffic restrictions. With emergency vehicles fielding consistent calls for assistance amid COVID-19, public safety is an important consideration in making streets more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians. But he did later change his tune and commit to 100 miles of open streets at some point soon, albeit with strict parameters to not interfere with first responders.
"Emergency vehicles right now are taking in more calls than they have on average every day," LoBasso said. "We don't want necessarily [to close streets that are] going to need to use a lot of police resources or that need to be constantly surveilled."
"For DC, we really were going to push this idea that they need a more nimble approach to [closing streets], so that it could be something that could happen more often, not just during a global pandemic but in general."
Executive director, Washington Area Bicyclist Association
Cumbersome approval processes may also prevent cities from quickly closing streets. While DC is good at closing streets for one-off events like marathons or major political events, those are typically planned well in advance, Billing said. DC may need a more nimble approach to closing streets when appropriate opportunities arise.
"I think there will be more public buy-in to this idea that the streets could be used for things more than just moving and parking cars, and people are hopefully a little more open to that idea now," Billing said.
Widespread support of the open streets trend is also lacking, even at the mayoral level. A joint blog post by the National Motorists Association (NMA) and the Keep the US Moving (KUSM) group said cities should avoid "politicizing streets" with such closures, as it can "look unempathetic to what most of us are going through currently."
And in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, editor Abraham Gutman argued that expanding street closures could send the message that it is "OK to be outside," when the priority for residents' health should be staying inside to help prevent the spread of the infection through rigorous social distancing.
"The only signal that should come from government officials right now is: Stay at home, save lives," Gutman wrote. "The only way this nightmare of social isolation and pain — both worse for people losing their incomes, not to mention loved ones — ends is if everyone does their part. That means only necessary and cautious time outside."
This concern of COVID-19 spreading was also expressed in an open letter by Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa. She said closing traffic lanes could undermine social distancing guidelines and unintentionally encourage spread of the coronavirus.
"We do not want to inadvertently encourage people to leave their homes through opening streets which could result in higher pedestrian demand and social gathering," de Villa wrote.
Maintaining the cycling uptick post-pandemic
While full pandemic recovery is a long way off, it appears some cities are thinking ahead to how the uptick in cycling can be maintained long-term.
Following a concerted effort from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to expand car-free spaces, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Director Jeffrey Tumlin said he and his staff are already looking at how streets can be re-designed once the shelter-in-place order finishes.
Something to look forward to: @sfmta_muni and Director @jeffreytumlin are already planning a rapid transformation of SF's streets to prioritize transit and cycling once shelter-in-place is over. pic.twitter.com/Gth2jksMMA— Kyle Grochmal (@KCGrock) April 8, 2020
Filling any existing gaps between bike lane networks, in a bid to enhance safety, is one way to encourage more bicycling post-pandemic. Nesper said that act could make more casual cyclists feel safer on the streets, and simultaneously encourage car drivers to reduce their speeds.
LoBasso cautioned, however, that cycling advocates must not be seen as trying to take advantage of the pandemic to push their own agendas.
"I don't think that situations like this need to be exploited, but I think that when it's over we do need to have conversations with everybody to say, 'What did you do differently that you have brought over into your regular life?'" LoBasso said. "I get the feeling for a lot of people that's going to be riding a bike more."
And it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to force such a reckoning, Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, told Smart Cities Dive.
"It's so interesting to see the cycling going up," Klopp said. "It's so interesting to see in cities like Bogotá, where they've got people off the streets and they're just creating massive cycling lanes so that people can cycle and get to places where they need to go and be outside in the air and be separate from each other. Why aren't we putting more of our money into that kind of infrastructure anyway?"
It would be incumbent on residents to show their support for different infrastructure and street designs, especially if they want to make changes more permanent, John Siraut, economics director at Jacobs Engineering Group, said during a webinar hosted by nonprofit NewCities.
"We've seen cities already put in major improvements in cycling and walking, redistributed space from the road network," Siraut said. "And the question is, will citizens want that to be maintained going forward? Do they actually want to see a big reduction in vehicle use in our major cities? That could be the way public transit survives, because people are seeing the benefits of relatively car-free cities and lots of people would like to see that maintained going forward."
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