Walking and cycling should lead mobility post-social distancing

Notts Ave now has a 10 km/h speed limit Notts Ave now has a 10 km/h speed limit

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has shown us that we need to look differently at the way we go about our day-to-day lives and offers a great opportunity to rethink our mobility for more livable and safer cities.

Many cities around the globe are turning to walking and the trusty bicycle to help them navigate the unprecedented challenge to global health. Cases such as the “Innovative Streets for People” in Auckland in NZ are a brilliant example about how simple yet effective measures can be implemented to tackle our invisible and pervasive enemy, whilst paving the road for a people-friendly spaces and safer streets that increase the quality of lives once this after the pandemic vanishes.

These temporary implementation of these urban mobility strategies have one thing in common – using the Tactical Urbanism approach for testing. Tactical urbanism is reversible, lowering risks. Implementation costs are often minimal. Demonstration helps drive acceptance.

Reclaiming city streets for more space (and priority) to people are crucial to this new urban agenda.

The list of reclamations of streets for pedestrians and cycling involves more and more cities as we go through this pandemic, showing that an alternative mobility is not only a viable option, but probably one of our best planning tool for mobility.

What about Sydney?

The Harbour City faces the same challenges as other cities, however no bold actions have been taken so far in consideration to how we move throughout the city.

  • Centennial Park closed its doors to cars during the four-day Easter Weekend, and remained open only to pedestrian and cyclists [link].
  • Pedestrian crossing managed by push buttons, also known as “beg buttons”, have been made automatic in Sydney CBD so that people avoid touching unnecessary surfaces. We at WalkSydney had a role in promoting this change and we support this action being extended to Greater Sydney and New South Wales. The extension of the automated pedestrian crossing to be expanded to key health precincts in Greater Sydney is a good signal things are going in the right direction [link][link]. Intersections around Hospitals in Wollongong are also being made automatic [link]. Beside Covid-19, these buttons have long been criticized as their purpose is less to keep people safe than to reinforce the dominance of cars so that car traffic signals can minimize the car travel “delays” associated with people who need to cross a street on foot.

These Covid-19 mitigation measures are certainly a good starting point to positively impact the way we move in Sydney, but chances are that they are planned to accommodate the temporary rather than to fit into a long term plan. This approach poses the risk of going back to normal once the pandemng is over and experience a surge in the use of private car to observe social distancing and feel secure; Cars will once again clog up roads, the vehicle Level of Service decreases and we will plan for road widening instead of focusing on the opportunity to rethink the way we move for a more sustainable and safer city for the better of Sydneysiders.

Public Transport agencies are experiencing a great loss of revenues (mostly coming from selling tickets) and the threat of a new surge in the use of private vehicles seems has been realised.

So what’s the scenario for Sydney?

There is no receipe for this but common sense. A large proportion of trips in Sydney, approximately 76% of all domestic trips, do not exceed 10 kilometers in distance and more than a third of these trips are made by people aged 20 to 39 years (Household Travel Survey, 2016). A subset of this proportion are younger generations that do not own a private vehicle and in principle seem not interested to buy a car anytime soon.

More than ever, planning for pedestrians and cycling should be a top priority in the urban agenda. Tactical urbanism can be used to make quick progress by testing and piloting projects to help demonstrate their value to the community.