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American Cities Are Built for Cars. The Coronavirus Could Change That.

Wider sidewalks and no-car zones are the new hot commodity. They could even help businesses reopen.

John Moore/Getty Images

As the Covid-19 crisis wears on, a surprising tool has emerged in the effort to slow transmission: city streets. The car has long been king in America’s cities, with spacious roadways edged by narrow sidewalks. But with many sidewalks barely large enough for the six feet required for social distancing purposes, urban residents now find themselves struggling to comply with regulations during even a brief grocery trip. Some have started walking in largely traffic-free streets to get a little breathing room. As the number of runners outside surges—partly due to the closure of gyms—and bikes replace transit for some, suddenly many Americans are looking at city planning in a different way.

On April 10, Oakland, California, debuted what it dubbed “Slow Streets.” Closing some areas off for through traffic and urging slow driving to ensure pedestrian and cyclist safety, the city has encouraged walking, cycling, scooting, and playing. The program will eventually expand to 74 miles.

Other cities swiftly followed, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, New York, and Seattle, which called its program “Stay Healthy Streets” in a nod to the public health benefits of time spent outdoors. Even smaller municipalities, such as the Boston suburb of Brookline, quickly widened sidewalks and added bike lanes, using temporary materials and markings to ease residents’ movement.

These interventions merely tweak the streetscape and in most cases are little more than suggestions to road users, rather than a direct transfer of asphalt from drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. They pale before the street transformations in cities elsewhere in the world. Before it went into lockdown in March, the Colombian capital of Bogotá opened 47 miles of temporary bike lanes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on its popular TransMillenio bus rapid transit system. Earlier this month, Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, declared that these temporary lanes would be made permanent.

European cities, already light-years ahead of their American counterparts when it comes to progressive transportation and democratic use of street space, have moved forward at warp speed. Barcelona removed parking spaces on about 13 miles of city streets to build bike lanes and will create at least seven miles of pedestrianized streets. Kostas Bakoyannis, the mayor of Athens, has vowed to “liberate public space from cars and give it to people” with a plan to transform over 530,000 square feet to allow for safe cycling and comfortable walking. Berlin began with a set of temporary bike lanes in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district in late April and is now up to 14 miles of new bike lanes to accommodate residents wishing to avoid transit. Rome will construct 93 miles of bike lanes. Milan is pursuing an ambitious plan to widen sidewalks, add 22 miles of bike lanes, and reduce speed limits for cars to 20 miles per hour. Many European cities already featured spacious pedestrian zones at their centers prior to the pandemic. We can expect more such transformations as summer nears.

This is a remarkable turn of events. Projects that in the past might have been delayed by years of study or vociferous objection from car drivers are now being installed in a matter of weeks or days. Mayors who once might have equivocated about balancing transportation needs are firmly declaring that streets that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists are not cute amenities, but necessities for a happy populace and a thriving economy.

The world’s most ambitious civic leaders have pinned their hopes of recovery on pedestrians. In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan recently warned that “London’s road to recovery cannot be clogged with cars.” As investment bankers and other employees of the City of London return to the financial center in the coming weeks, they will find that the Square Mile has been transformed with sidewalks, new routes for buses and bicycles, and more space for people to spread out.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, who had already staked much of her political career on promoting cycling, has seen in the coronavirus crisis an opportunity to convince Parisians that the radical notions of a socialist mayor are an entirely sensible way for the French capital to spring back to life. In April, Hidalgo announced that her city would install a whopping 400 miles of cycleways, many of which were rolled out by early May. Cars were banned on a one-mile stretch of Rue de Rivoli—as monumental, and nearly as inconceivable, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio banning cars on Fifth Avenue or Lori Lightfoot banishing them from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.

In a world where few will want to pack into a crowded restaurant for quite some time, even small cities understand that a creative reimagining of streets is the key to their economic survival. Vilnius, Lithuania, has turned its sidewalks and plazas into vast outdoor cafés so that restaurants can offer patrons food and drink at a responsible social distance. Tel Aviv is pedestrianizing 11 streets to encourage foot traffic and outdoor dining.

American cities, which historically charge high fees for business owners wishing to operate a sidewalk café, are catching on, understanding that adopting a more laissez-faire, or even an actively pro-outdoor, dining approach might be the ticket to making it to the other side of this crisis with their tax base intact. Cincinnati, Ohio, recently converted parking lanes and streets in its Over-the-Rhine neighborhood into makeshift pedestrian plazas and dining patios, allowing restaurants a chance to serve customers and keep their businesses afloat. Hoboken, New Jersey, is employing a similar tactic, with its mayor, Ravi Bhalla, encouraging the development of “steateries”: tables and chairs set up in parking spots, from which people can enjoy takeout food and drinks. In Washington, D.C., business owners are begging the city to turn bar-heavy 18th Street into a pedestrian and bike zone so that the neighborhood’s restaurants and watering holes can reopen. And some seem to think this might make sense even after the pandemic is over: “This is something we believe in, not just for today but to create something that’s different and can help businesses grow and prosper for the future,” Adams Morgan Commercial Development Coalition co-founder Matt Wexler told The Washingtonian.

These changes will hopefully help cities and the people who live in them endure the pandemic in greater health, happiness, and financial security. But they also offer a kind of proof of concept for climate-friendly lifestyle shifts. The recent pedestrian- and cyclist-oriented changes have shown that society can pivot practically on a dime and remake itself in better and more sustainable ways. Having walked or cycled on mostly car-free streets during lockdown-related open-streets events, people returning to work as restrictions ease might start to wonder why so many of our urban thoroughfares are lined with parked cars rather than wide sidewalks or truly protected bicycle lanes. With traffic all but vanished from most of the world’s roads and clear blue skies over cities from Los Angeles to Delhi, people have gotten a taste of what the world can be like with fewer automobiles. It remains to be seen what will happen when a vaccine is found and the coronavirus crisis ends. But in the wake of the pandemic’s seismic economic and social upheaval, many axioms of modern city life—office commutes, certain real estate patterns, and more—are likely to be revisited and reimagined. Now that people have seen streets’ potential as vibrant social spaces as well as tools for economic and environmental resilience, they may not want to let the cars return.