Over the past few months, several facets of our transportation system have been brought to light, one of which being the deficiency of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in cities around the world. Our previous articles explored how European Cities are leveraging the current situation to add to their stock of permanent infrastructure even after social distancing ends . However, that has led some to ponder whether American cities should do the same. Historically, the United States has been known for having a car-oriented culture with decades of policy to back it compared to its European counterparts. However, mandatory social distancing regulations have shifted our focus towards bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
In order to avoid prolonged contact in public transit and maintain healthy physical activity levels, many have turned to walking and biking during the pandemic. With a possible yearlong wait for a vaccine, it would not be surprising if the spike in the demand for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure outlasts the pandemic itself. Even after the stay at home order ends, a significant share of commuters may continue to be wary of using public transit regardless of safety arrangements, and may prefer other modes of travel. Therefore, although there has been an increase in bicycle purchases , there will most likely be an increase in car purchases as well, as people deem it the safest mode of transportation in regards to COVID-19 . Regardless of this increased demand for private vehicles, large cities simply do not have the space for everyone to own a car and not everyone can afford to buy one. Providing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure would be essential in supporting the daily activities of the general public as well as vulnerable populations in this situation. Additionally, it would be advantageous to provide a working permanent infrastructure that can secure the safety of all transportation users instead of jeopardizing the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists by forcing them to compete for space with drivers. While temporary bicycle and pedestrian improvements would also be helpful, permanent barriers are much safer than designating a bike lane with paint , and a variety of permanent solutions ranging from implementing bollards and green infrastructure to placing the bike lane in between on-street parking and the sidewalk can be used to create a safer environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Outside of emergency circumstances, bike lanes are like a lifeline for vulnerable populations. Additionally, reports have shown that this pandemic has struck lower-income and minority populations more than other demographic groups . Providing permanent bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure could help disadvantaged and carless population in getting around safely during the pandemic. Critics of this idea worry that this may not be the most cost-effective choice during a time when funding is spread thin by emergency spending for individuals stricken by unemployment and business issues . Others suggest that investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure may help uplift the economy by providing jobs while increasing mobility in minority and low-income populations.
Some American cities and states have already announced plans to expand their permanent bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure after the lockdown orders end. Recently, the Mayor of Seattle, Jenny A. Durkan, announced that the twenty miles of temporarily pedestrianized streets created under the Stay Healthy Streets Pilot will be made permanent . An additional three miles of Stay Healthy Streets are currently in the works. The city took this action in response to a continuous increase in its bike ridership in 2019 (approximately 18%) and then again during the lockdown. These Stay Healthy Streets are closed to all traffic except residents and delivery services . Across the country, New York City officials announced that they will be implementing new temporary bike lanes. Due to a 90-day notice period before creating permanent bike lanes, citizens will have to wait to see which of these paths may be “phased into permanent lanes” . While implementing a city-wide program to develop permanent bicycle infrastructure may be a daunting task, inspiration can be taken from Australia where cities are giving the people the chance to turn temporary COVID-19 bike/ped improvements into permanent changes based on their usage . It will be interesting to see how American cities continue to develop their bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the future. It is always difficult to take the first step but creating equitable and healthier environments for everyone is worth the hardship.
Image Source: Dianne Yee on Flickr