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Cities / Healthy Cities

Coronavirus lockdowns prompt rethink on design of street layouts

By Andrew Sansom 23 Apr 2020 0

The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has relaxed its rules governing the closure of roads to vehicles to make way for pedestrians and cyclists, for the duration of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.

The move is aimed at freeing up space for key workers, and others who are out and about for acceptable reasons such as food shopping, to maintain two metres of physical distance when walking or cycling. 

Traffic regulation orders are typically the mechanism by which change of use for roads in England is applied, but this process can be slow and laborious. 

Local authorities will now have the power to quickly and easily make roads car-free, widen footways, or install temporary cycle lanes. These looser rules, announced last week, will be “withdrawn once conditions allow,” the DfT says.

But a group of active travel organisations, as well as Barts Health NHS Trust, have written to the Department for Transport, urging it to go further. The open letter – signed by Dr Ian Basnett, director of public health for Barts, and leaders of Brompton Bicycle, Cycling UK, British Cycling, Sustrans, The Bicycle Association, The Ramblers, and the London Cycle Campaign – calls on the DfT to encourage local highway authorities to consider implementing temporary initiatives to enable safer walking and cycling during the pandemic.

In the letter, dated 17 April, the group point out that with a large increase in people cycling and walking, many street layouts across the UK are not considered “fit for purpose” during the pandemic.

They highlight how towns and cities around the world are enabling cycling and walking during COVID-19, within social distancing guidelines, by implementing temporary infrastructure. They also point to a surge in people cycling and walking for exercise in line with the UK Government’s public health recommendations, underlining that such measures improve conditions for these groups too.

They say in the letter: “We welcome your Department’s statement . . . clarifying that local authorities have powers to take initiatives of this kind using experimental traffic regulation orders and similar procedures.

“Our organisations would, however, urge you to go further and provide a clear positive ministerial statement encouraging local highway authorities to consider implementing temporary initiatives of this kind. That would give local authorities the confidence to quickly implement measures, enabling safe cycling and walking within the Government’s social distancing guidelines.”

Many countries are looking to redesign their urban street layouts. Berlin State in Germany has closed many roads to motor vehicles and published a guide on temporary cycle provision, while Paris is creating 650km of protected bikeways. 

New Zealand has provided national funding to enable cities to create or widen sidewalks and bike lanes during the pandemic. And several cities in North America have also created emergency cycle lanes and sidewalks. 

On 22 April, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Carlina Rivera introduced legislation to open city streets to pedestrians and cyclists during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow New Yorkers more room for social distancing. The legislation will require the city to allocate more street space to pedestrians and cyclists in neighbourhoods throughout the five boroughs, with a citywide target of 75 miles of streets.  

“New Yorkers don’t have the street space they need to maintain proper social distancing, which we know is essential in this public health crisis,” said Johnson. “While we want to work collaboratively with the administration to open streets, this issue is so important and so urgent that we are taking legislative action to make it happen ourselves. Other cities across the country and around the world have demonstrated that this is doable. There is no reason we can’t do this here,” 

Rivera said: “For years, New York City led the nation in developing innovative solutions to our biggest urban challenges. Now we’ve fallen behind so many other cities during the COVID-19 crisis, including when it comes to ensuring proper social distancing on our streets for New Yorkers –  from the senior going to the grocery store, to the essential worker on their way to the hospital. 

“And, as the weather gets warmer and more New Yorkers seek brief respites from stuffy, cramped, and often un-airconditioned homes, we have to provide them with outdoor spaces where they can properly social distance, and our parks just can’t do the job alone.