As post-lockdown reopening continues around the world, leaders are wondering how to maintain social distancing while also returning to life as (somewhat) normal. The timing of this discussion is especially prescient considering today is World Environment Day, the theme of which this year is #ForNature. While it’s clear the wildlife we’ve been seeing outside our windows won’t last forever once we emerge from this pandemic, the car-free zones we’re now seeing worldwide could help heal the planet in the long run.
Many European cities have introduced designated car-free zones to eliminate overcrowding during this time of transition. The areas, which promote walking and bicycling over public transportation and private vehicles, may also play a key role in creating more sustainable urban communities.
Here’s a look at three of these cities, and the potential benefits of more car-free zones in the short and long term.
In mid-May, London Mayor Sadiq Khan introduced the Streetspace plan, “one of the most ambitious walking and cycling schemes of any city in the world,” The Guardian reported.
In the plan, main streets surrounding the London Bridge and other select areas will be closed to the majority of automobile traffic, with the exception of emergency services and transportation for the disabled community. The hope is that by encouraging people to walk or cycle on these streets instead, public transportation and personal cars will be seen as last resorts, easing congestion.
Keeping public transportation numbers down is especially crucial. A release from the mayor’s office stated that even if Transport for London (London’s public transit system, also known as TfL) returns to pre-pandemic trip numbers, less than 15 percent of passengers would be able to ride, if social distancing is to be maintained.
“If we want to make transport in London safe, and keep London globally competitive, then we have no choice but to rapidly repurpose London’s streets for people,” Mayor Khan said in a press statement. “By ensuring our city’s recovery is green, we will also tackle our toxic air, which is vital to make sure we don’t replace one public health crisis with another.”
Milan has been hit exceptionally hard by both pollution and pandemic over the past year. In 2019, it was named one of Italy’s most polluted cities. Then this spring, Milan and its surrounding Lombardy province became the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Before the pandemic, 55 percent of residents used Milan’s public transportation, resulting in an average of 1.4 million metro trips each day. To accommodate social distancing during reopening, the metro’s capacity will be reduced by more than two-thirds to a maximum daily ridership of 400,000.
It would be impossible to make up that difference with personal vehicles — there aren’t enough cars or parking spots, and traffic would be unmanageable. Instead, Milan is converting 22 miles of road space this summer into cycling and walking paths, as part of its Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan. On streets where cars are still allowed, speed limits will be greatly decreased.
Janette Sadik-Khan, a transportation policy advisor with Bloomberg Associates, is working with Milan and other cities on their transportation plans, including ideas for car-free zones, during reopening and beyond.
“The pandemic challenges us, but it also offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change course and repair the damage from a century of car-focused streets,” Sadik-Khan told BBC Future. “Cities that seize this moment to reallocate space on their streets . . . will prosper after this pandemic and not simply recover from it.”
In Hungary’s capital city, bike lanes were almost “nonexistent” prior to the pandemic, according to Mike Lydon, principal at the urban planning and design firm Street Plans.
Since April, however, more than 12 miles of bike lanes have been introduced throughout the city. “[Leaders in Budapest] were one of the first to really say, 'Okay, this is an opportunity that’s important beyond the worst of the pandemic. We can trial these things now and get them integrated. It’s easier to build these and then promote them as being potentially temporary,'” Lydon said in an interview with Fast Company.
Although the cycling lanes are currently scheduled to remain only until September, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony’s office is monitoring traffic levels and may make the lanes a more permanent fixture if they are successful in lessening congestion.
“The pandemic has changed transport globally,” the mayor’s chief of staff, Samu Balogh, told BBC Future. “We have the opportunity to see what our cities look like when we are designing for people, not cars.”
Researchers are still in the early stages of studying the exact relationship between air pollution and COVID-19. What is sure, however, is that pollution — including that from transportation — has been linked to more than 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the 40 million healthcare experts behind the #HealthyRecovery letter to G20 leaders. Significant reductions in personal automobile traffic — especially of combustion-engine vehicles — would result in healthier, more resilient communities.
“There exists a building momentum across the world that recognizes car-free streets as a critical way of tackling the urgent climate crisis, as well as a strategy to improve health and wellbeing,” BBC Future’s Francesca Perry wrote in late April. “This pandemic has resulted in countless forced changes to our lifestyles, economies and environments. Seeing what’s possible can lead to change — the question is how to ensure the change resulting from this global emergency improves health for people and planet.”
Image credit: Pixabay
Megan is a freelance writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. Her blog - Joyful, Brave & Awesome - chronicles her experience as a parent of a special needs child.