Transportation planning and disease prevention entail different forms of expertise. But mathematically, getting people where they need to go, and stopping the spread of COVID-19 are both exercises of geometry.
In a coronavirus-weary world, space transcends speed. Streets normally dedicated to moving cars are being re-purposed so people patronizing stationary businesses can physically distance. At the spectrum’s other end, high-speed trains are alleviating hospital capacity strain and giving people potentially exposed to the virus on cramped airplanes room to safely quarantine.
Here’s how the pandemic has shed light on the spatial realities underlying how we get around.
All people are pedestrians, and space helps keep them safe
Walking, while pure and straightforward, has a multi-faceted purpose. A pedestrian might be getting fresh air or exercise with no specific destination in mind, be headed to a neighborhood market or grocery store, or be on their way to catch a bus or train to a different part of their region.
But streets designed to maximize automobile speed endanger pedestrians. COVID-19 adds another dimension to this danger since people hemmed onto a narrow walkway have a greater probability of unwittingly spreading the virus. Sufficient physical distancing is challenging to impossible on almost all of hard-hit New York City’s sidewalks, for example, in part because street parking limits the sidewalks’ width.
Widening sidewalks is a simple way to give pedestrians space. Washington, DC – a place that had prior experience with pop-up pedestrianization, expanding busy Georgetown walkways into roadways on some weekends – has added walking space in front of grocery stores and pharmacies.
Citizens initiated DC’s effort by installing makeshift “pandemic protected sidewalks” in their neighborhoods. The subsequent opening of Cleveland Park’s service lane to people, one of the District’s first official conversions, similarly followed years of local residents’ activism to pedestrianize the space.
Street conversions also can create space to conduct business. Before the pandemic, farmers’ markets replaced cars weekly on main streets in places from Berkeley, Ca. to New Buffalo, Mi. Also, Sacramento held an annual farm-to-fork dinner on its iconic Tower Bridge, an arterial roadway typically used by drivers traveling to and from the city’s downtown.
Tampa, Fl. – which reopened sit-down dining relatively early – has allowed restaurants to expand outdoor seating into streets and parking lots to allow for physical distancing. Aforementioned Berkeley and Sacramento, among others, are following that lead. Just this week, the Arlington County Board have granted approval for temporary outdoor seating areas by re-purposing sidewalks and parking spaces to accommodate tables and flexible walking space.
These business expansions have raised concerns about privatization of public space. To address such concerns, communities might consider creating places where people can publicly consume to-go food and drink from any establishment of their choosing.
City-level models in the U.S. include New Orleans, with its walkable French Quarter, and Savannah, Ga., with its 22 historic town squares. For a more localized approach, planners can look to Tijuana’s Telefonica Gastro Park, an indoor-outdoor collection of eateries and breweries with plans to open a second location across the border in San Diego. In Charlottesville, VA, planners revitalized the downtown pedestrian mall by removing its one-way road. The road previously acted as a deterrent to patrons who would have to constantly circle the area to find parking. Now by banning cars, pedestrians can enjoy art shows, music, and dining while freely moving about.
Even with such additional space, pedestrians sometimes must interact with automobiles to get where they need to go. However, concerns about COVID-19 spread have led many municipalities across the country to take an important step to make these interactions safer: guaranteeing pedestrian signal phases that eliminate the need for people to press potentially contaminated “beg buttons.” In DC, over 80 percent of apparent beg buttons aren’t associated with signal phases – they simply turn on audio announcements that help disabled people cross the street – so clarifying signage, or removing the buttons and permanently activating the audio, could help address the issue.
Communities also can responsibly accelerate construction of planned pedestrian bridges. Concerns about physical distancing led Saskatoon, Canada to close its narrow CP Rail Pedestrian Bridge, for example, suggesting that additional walking capacity is necessary.
In the past, the prospect of short-term disruptions to drivers has proven an obstacle to building new bridges. This conundrum led to tragedy in 2018 when a bridge near Florida International University designed to minimize construction effects on car traffic collapsed before it opened, killing six people. But with vehicle miles traveled down significantly during the pandemic, opportunities exist to expedite construction of walking and biking bridges – such as a bridge over Lee Highway near Arlington, Va.’s East Falls Church Metro station currently scheduled to open in fall of 2020.
When riding transit, people need space inside and outside buses and trains
While pedestrian infrastructure comprises the foundation of a neighborhood, transit systems provide the inter-neighborhood connectivity that makes activity hubs possible. During COVID-19 these systems are sustaining essential functions, a purpose that will diversify as society bounces back.
The pandemic has upended the meaning of some space-related transit performance measures. Ridership declines were perceived as a symbol of poor performance pre-virus, but now agencies are telling people not to ride. However, concerns about coronavirus spread have magnified the importance of other measures, such as the amount of time people spend onboard.
Transit agencies can give riders more space for onboard physical distancing, exponentially reducing the risk of viral spread, by running larger vehicles more frequently. For example, San Francisco’s Muni recently boosted bus frequencies on eight lines, while Boston’s MBTA is purchasing buses that it may use to increase capacity during upcoming phases of that region’s reopening. And Madison County, N.Y., a predominantly rural jurisdiction outside of Syracuse, is running a larger bus on one of its transit lines.
Agencies also can limit the number of riders onboard their vehicles. Some, including WMATA, are allowing bus operators to skip stops at their discretion, while others – such as Houston’s METRO and Portland, Or.’s TriMet – have blocked off specific seats to ensure riders distance themselves.
While managing onboard space is one factor in managing the virus, the off-board space that buses and trains operate in – specifically, the extent to which they must interact with automobiles and are prioritized in those interactions – defines another factor: travel time. In addition to reducing the chances of exposure to COVID-19 on a transit vehicle, shorter waiting times and increased headways can facilitate a more effective restoration of society by making transit a more convenient option during the pandemic recovery.
Congestion-caused delays might be minimal for the time being – Pittsburgh’s buses were on time more consistently in March 2020 than during any other month dating back to the beginning of 2018 – but transit agencies can further speed their vehicles up through other means.
For example, many agencies have transitioned to rear-door boarding to separate bus operators from passengers during the pandemic. In its service restoration plan, WMATA indicated that it is considering continuing to allow bus riders to board through the rear door, which could reduce dwell times at stops.
Also, Los Angeles has adjusted the timing of its traffic signals during COVID-19. While LA’s changes are primarily to prevent drivers from speeding, cities might also consider signal patterns that prioritize buses at intersections. Such transit signal prioritization reduced travel times by 15 percent on Chicago’s Cermark Road; the resulting faster trips facilitate millions of dollars in operational savings that agencies can use to run more buses – and, accordingly, provide more space for riders to physically distance.
When society starts to recover, road congestion will likely increase – possibly quite sharply, as happened when parts of China emerged from lockdown – so dedicated transit lanes will be necessary to sustain travel time improvements for riders. Reno, Nv. has accordingly accelerated construction of a bus rapid transit corridor during lighter pandemic-era traffic. Rudimentary, but quicker lane conversions also can make a substantial difference; DC officials made painted bus lanes on two downtown streets permanent in 2019 after observing faster trip times during a pilot program.
Space for biking provides flexibility and redundancy, tying a transportation system together
Person-sized vehicles like bikes and scooters can accelerate mobility within a neighborhood, expanding the reach of transit systems and the activity hubs they serve. They also can move people around a region, providing redundancy that can take pressure off roads and transit lines. Biking proved the fastest way around DC in a 2019 multi-modal race organized by Washington City Paper because the cyclist avoided the woes of traffic congestion, parking, and long waits for buses.
During COVID-19, people have embraced bicycles – be they personally owned or part of a shared fleet – as a safe form of outdoor exercise and a way to avoid enclosed commutes. Coronavirus-era demand for personal bikes has led to a national supply shortage, suggesting that cycling will remain a vital part of communities’ mobility through the recovery and beyond. There are even indications that biking has become more embedded in cultural cornerstones such as family life and dating during the pandemic.
But cyclists need dedicated space to reduce dangerous interactions with automobiles, especially given increased virus-era driver speeding. Strategies communities have employed can be categorized into two buckets: local traffic calming and regional dedicated cycling networks.
People don’t want the neighborhoods in which they live to serve as corridors for speeding automobiles, regardless of their density or design. However, a common U.S. approach to this challenge – the suburban cul-de-sac – often winds up making communities more auto-dependent by forcing people on bike or foot to take circuitous routes to corridors where businesses and transit lines are located.
Many communities found ways to address this issue pre-pandemic. In Davis, Ca., for example, wide walking and cycling paths connect the end of many cul-de-sacs to mainline bikeways; the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Il. similarly erected a gate at one entrance to its Tall Trees neighborhood that prevents through car travel while maintaining access for cyclists, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles. When navigation apps started directing drivers onto Leonia, N.J.’s residential streets, the borough responded with a mix of do-not-enter signs and resident vehicle tags, while contraflow bike lanes installed in 2019 allow for through cycling on Northwest DC’s one-way Woodley Place.
Top: Citizens built an extra barricade using household items on one of Oakland’s slow streets to help prevent drivers from speeding. Bottom: Drivers proceeded past signage and barriers that had been moved to the side of the road on a different slow street. (Photos by Andy Furillo)
COVID-19 has led a number of communities to install pop-up versions of these traffic-calming strategies, commonly branded as “slow” or “healthy” streets. I explored Oakland, Ca.’s virus-motivated slow streets network – currently 20 miles long, with plans for expansion to 74 miles – and observed that while some neighborhoods have embraced the traffic calming, even installing extra barricades providing additional protection from drivers, cars sped past displaced signage in other neighborhoods. These observed disparities may corroborate concerns that community engagement during the network’s rollout, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, was insufficient.
Municipalities may address equitability concerns by integrating traffic-calmed streets into their transit networks. San Francisco planned its slow streets in part as a way to maintain safe, sustainable mobility coverage while consolidating bus service onto trunk lines. Other communities may wish to provide direct transit coverage to calmed residential streets; the National Association of City Transportation Officials has developed guidance on shared bike-bus lane designs that can help accomplish this goal.
During COVID-19, people have biked to get around not just their neighborhoods, but their regions. The DC region’s network of bike paths, like others around the U.S., has seen significant spikes in usage.
However, resulting crowding on paths makes it difficult for cyclists to safely sustain the speeds needed to make regional biking viable, especially given that walkers and joggers are also using the trails en masse. Physical distancing concerns even led Dallas-area authorities to restrict usage of the region’s Katy Trail on high-demand days based on peoples’ last names, a drastic step resembling China’s periodic policy of only allowing drivers with certain license plate numbers on roads to reduce air pollution.
To give cyclists more room to move and maneuver, municipalities have opened up space on arterials normally reserved for drivers.
DC has made Beach Drive – a road through Rock Creek Park that served largely as a car commute route on weekdays before the pandemic – cyclist-and-pedestrian-only for the time being, while a two-mile stretch of San Francisco’s oceanfront Great Highway is now a Great Walkway (and bikeway). Latin American cities including Mexico City and Bogota, known for their weekly open streets events, have similarly converted road space full-time during coronavirus.
Overseas, Paris and Milan have plans for permanent regional cycling networks to help reduce road congestion and crowding on mainline transit; those networks could resemble the high-performing bikeways of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. London, meanwhile, will convert city-center streets in part so people can move between regional rail hubs and offices outdoors rather than via cars or feeder transit.
People and places need space to function. Will they take advantage?
COVID-19 has reminded us how important space is to people, be they in place or in motion.
When publicly embraced and optimized, space has kept people healthy, sustained access, and begun to restore society. But if individuals and their automobiles compartmentalize that space, the result will be an oppressive monotony of lost time, missed opportunities, and isolation.
To get everything we can out of our space, we must understand how people use it, move through it, and how society might cover the cost of that use. We will explore strategies for such shaping and pricing in forthcoming articles.