COVID-19 ISO Insights

COVID-19: What Will Urban Transportation Look Like in the Year to Come?

May 18, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

For the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, news reports and visuals coming from China and Europe effectively represented a peek into a time portal for anxious U.S. businesses and residents. Eerie visuals of empty streets in Wuhan in February foreshadowed a desolate Times Square in March. Overrun hospitals in Italy around mid-March soon manifested into New York City's healthcare system scrambling to handle an onslaught of sick patients by the end of the month.

As society hopes that the worst is now behind us, the same principles may very well apply to the gradual reopening of cities and countries across the world too. And with respect to transportation, European cities are reportedly applying measures that could accelerate trends that were underway prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and might provide some guidance for the reopening in the U.S. Here are some examples.

Milan, Italy

Given that, according to Citylab, many questions remain regarding the role that different public transit systems (buses, subways, etc.) play in the spread of COVID-19, Milan is reportedly determining what the appropriate capacity for the systems will be, and how non-users of transit will be accommodated.

Prior to the outbreak, per Citylab, an average of 1.4 million people used public transit daily. In the coming weeks, or even months, no more than 400,000 people will be allowed to access public transit each day.

This cutoff, which nullifies about two-thirds of rides that occurred before COVID-19, means that many will need to find alternative means to get around Milan. When projecting future travel trends that may emerge in the aftermath of the crisis, it is reasonable to speculate that people will be more inclined to use their isolated personal vehicles to get around the city.

However, The Guardian has reported that the city is implementing changes to the infrastructure that could limit the use of personal vehicles. Per the article, 22 miles of street space will be converted to cycling and walking space. Additionally, a 20 MPH speed limit on drivers will be implemented to protect those on two-wheeled vehicles, or who choose to walk.

The Guardian notes that Milan is a dense city, and relayed a quote from the city’s deputy Mayor, who said the following:

“We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops.”

A former transport commissioner who is assisting different cities in their transport recovery programs, per The Guardian, opined that what Milan is doing may provide a roadmap for other cities as they reopen.

Paris, France

Citylab has reported that the Mayor of Paris has taken a strong stance opposing the use of private vehicles on the streets of the city in the aftermath of COVID-19, and perhaps for much longer than that. The Mayor reportedly stated that:

“I say in all firmness that it is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution. It will make the health crisis worse. Pollution is already in itself a health crisis and a danger — and pollution joined up with coronavirus is a particularly dangerous cocktail. So it’s out of the question to think that arriving in the heart of the city by car is any sort of solution, when it could actually aggravate the situation.”

Air pollution has been a frequently discussed topic during this crisis, as there has reportedly been some studies linking the severity of COVID-19 illnesses to cities that are exposed to higher levels of pollution. And according to howstuffworks, “harmful automotive emissions are responsible for anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of air pollution” in urban areas.

Additionally, since so many pollution-emitting industries and activities have dramatically slowed down during social distancing measures, cities and landmarks across the world have gotten significantly cleaner in a fairly short period of time. This taste of progress, as unusual and undesirable as the circumstances have been, appears to have helped generate some attention on this issue.

The statement by the Mayor dovetails with some of the initiatives that were underway in Paris prior to the outbreak; Citylab reported earlier in 2020 that the city adopted a 15-minute neighborhood blueprint to enable all residents to be within 15 minutes (walking or biking) of “having their needs met”, by way of health, work, food, and more.

In order to execute this plan, Citylab noted that car use would have to be phased out. As a result, space that had once been designated for cars have been repurposed to be more accommodating for bikers and walkers. And in the wake of this crisis, Citylab reported that even more temporary bike lanes will be implemented to encourage bike riding (and discourage use of public transit) for residents as they either head back to work or engage in other activities during the summer.

New York, New York

As of posting, it remains to be seen how the city that never sleeps could adjust its transportation dynamics to accommodate for the threats posed by COVID-19.

Prior to the outbreak, the New York Times noted that 5 million people rode the subway on a daily basis. However, given a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, per the New York Times, which found that the virus can survive on steel objects (like subway poles) for three days and stay suspended in air for 30 minutes, mass subway use before the discovery of a vaccine could be untenable.

With respect to walking or biking, as some of our Big Apple based readers may be aware of, the crowded streets and sidewalks of Manhattan inherently make social distancing extremely difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, quarantine-fatigued residents of the city may seek fresh air as the weather gets nicer, which could pose some issues with sidewalk congestion as well.

Given this dynamic, Curbed has reported that, similar to Paris, 100 miles of streets across the five New York boroughs will be closed off to cars and will instead include more temporary bike lanes and expanded walking space.

Also like Paris, prior to the outbreak, some efforts had been made in New York to reduce the amount of car traffic in the city, such as with the closure of 14th Street to private vehicles, and reported plans to build 250 miles of bike lanes, in part, to “‘break the car culture’”, as referenced by a City Council speaker.

After traffic deaths in New York city had risen in 2019 to 218, per the New York Times, the city appeared to have already been exploring different options to increase pedestrian safety, such as the reduction of private vehicle use. Given the shifts made necessary from COVID-19, it may be worth monitoring how New York functions this summer as a more walk-able, bikeable city, and if this could facilitate more long-term transportation shifts down the road.