In 2020 and into 2021, transportation agencies, companies and advocacy groups acted swiftly in the face of the unique public health crisis and disruption caused by COVID-19. They provided solutions that kept frontline workers, groceries, health services and other critical needs moving. What was so shocking to many experts was not only how rapidly these responses mobilized around the world, but also how effective they were and the creativity apparent in each effort, from reallocating street space to things like building pop-up bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Questions remain, however, regarding the planning process behind such rapid interventions, as well as whether these responses are helping to address equity concerns or exacerbate them.
Shortly after the start of the pandemic, we began collecting data on mobility responses that mainly focused on infrastructure and active transportation. This crowdsourcing effort resulted in the creation of the Shifting Streets COVID-19 Mobility Database, which documents and catalogs public sector responses that affect use of and access to transportation infrastructure in over 500 cities, states and countries.
Using the Shifting Streets COVID database, we then published a peer-reviewed analysis of the catalogued responses to this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Lessons drawn from the diversity and effectiveness of responses provide insights into significant shifts in how we move, as well as changes in expectations for our transportation systems.
The Massive, Nimble Response to COVID-19 in Active Mobility
When the pandemic hit, cities moved with uncharacteristic speed and flexibility around untested, learn-as-you-go interventions in mobility.
They responded almost overnight with steps to improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure – actions that ordinarily would have taken years to implement. These actions ranged from operational adjustments to limit spread of contagion, such as automation of walk signals, to concrete reallocations of physical infrastructure to support safe, physically distant non-car mobility.
Our analysis, which did not cover public transit, catalogued responses that arose between March and August 2020. While there was a great variety of mobility-related actions taken around the world, a considerable portion of those we tracked were located in North America and Europe.
We found that reallocating existing curb space and expanding street space for walking and cycling were among the most popular responses in cities to improve mobility. In North America, opening entire roadways to non-car uses for walking, cycling and outdoor commerce was the most common physical change reported. Reallocations of curb space and traffic lanes were more common in Europe and Latin America. The pace of change and popularity of different responses seemed to track with the progression of the pandemic.
Despite the considerable number of actions reviewed, we have only just scratched the surface in understanding the variety of cities’ responses and what lessons we can apply to transportation and urban planning going forward. To begin answering those questions and to see how mobility responses continue to evolve, more data – more detailed data – collected over a longer period of time is required.
Five Lingering Questions
While we have obtained many insights from our analysis, five unanswered questions have emerged.
1. How exactly did cities’ COVID-19 responses arise?
Answering this requires unpacking the institutional, regulatory and cultural factors that drive planning processes, which is necessary for understanding how we can build better, more accessible and equitable transport systems. The Shifting Streets database holds clues to begin this process, but grasping at a structural level how these mobility initiatives got off the ground requires more in-depth review of available information, such as the data catalogued in COVID Mobility Works, as well as recent reports like the European Mobility Atlas.
2. How will travel behaviors change in the long term?
It’s possible that the surge in activity and support around walking and cycling could signal a broader shift to more sustainable transport. At the same time, there is concern about perceived risk of COVID-19 contagion on public transportation continuing to drive people away from shared modes and into private vehicles, which might offset sustainability gains in active mobility.
3. Have the benefits of mobility responses been distributed equitably?
This must be a question constantly asked among the professional planning and transportation communities: whether the processes behind our interventions are delivering equitable outcomes.
Historically marginalized and low-income communities have been systematically denied access to safe, affordable mobility options and forced to bear the costs and deadly externalities of auto-centric transportation systems. In the United States in particular, communities of color are most impacted by transportation inequity. While many cities swiftly implemented pilot programs like open streets in response to the pandemic, decades of disinvestment and distrust in underserved areas led to an outcry from mobility justice advocates, who raised questions regarding inclusive engagement, enforcement and whom these responses benefit.
These questions have challenged many planners to rethink planning approaches, but studies so far suggest mixed results as to whether COVID-related interventions designed to improve access to safe mobility actually improved access or exacerbated existing disparities.
4. Do rapidly implemented, temporary bicycle and pedestrian facilities offer similar safety and mobility benefits to conventionally deployed, permanent infrastructure?
The bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that sprang up in cities was largely designed to be temporary and easy to implement. But there have yet to be detailed studies on the safety of these interventions and their specific, lasting benefits to mobility, which is what we would need in order to thoroughly assess if and when these rapid implementations make sense.
If quick-build facilities can be shown to have comparable safety and mobility benefits to traditionally deployed ones, then they could serve as a gateway to more permanent installations. They also could encourage transportation agencies to experiment with new design ideas that have proven safety benefits but either haven’t yet made it into engineering manuals or conflict with current car-focused standards.
5. How has public engagement shaped cities’ responses to the mobility challenges of COVID‐19 – particularly when it comes to equity?
Historically, transportation planning has a bad public engagement record – a history that many mobility responses to the pandemic have only highlighted further. For instance, major criticisms of “streateries” or open streets include how they do not adequately address the needs and concerns of lower-income populations and communities of color, or how they have perpetuated or exacerbated unsafe public environments.
Some cities, however, are experimenting with more inclusive public engagement. Oakland, California, began an iterative process informed by engagement with the local community to rethink its slow streets program to ensure equitable distribution of access and benefits. Similarly, Los Angeles announced it was reassessing its slow streets pilot to refocus on health and equity after local mobility advocates expressed concerns about how the project would directly address underserved communities.
It’s clear that mobility interventions implemented with a top-down approach to deploy as quickly as possible are likely to elicit resistance and calls for a more inclusive process, particularly from marginalized communities who do not feel their input is sought or considered in new transportation programs and investments. There are opportunities now to replace, modify or complement COVID mobility initiatives with more inclusive and accessible engagement to ensure active participation and ownership from communities.
As transportation professionals, urban planners and the like, we should always be asking ourselves how we can improve our methods and responses to challenges. If you are inspired to do so, you can help us by submitting more initiatives to the Shifting Streets database. After all, there are no single actors in creating more sustainable, equitable and joyful cities.
Tabitha Combs, PhD, is a research associate specializing in transportation planning and policy at the University of North Carolina Department of City and Regional Planning.