People-first cities: walking, cycling and scooting yield healthier communities
Redesigning cities to make them healthier and more people-centric will enable cleaner, low-carbon urban mobility in the wake of COVID-19, write WWF's Jennifer Lenhart and Lime's Andrew Savage.
As we recognize World Cities Day this year, we should draw lessons from the crisis and consider how we can recover and rebuild cities for a better, post-pandemic future. One place to start is thinking about air pollution. Early on in the crisis, scientists identified that communities with higher levels of pollution – often stemming from proximity to highways and other corridors with heavy car use, as well as chemical and manufacturing plants – were more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
The height of city lockdowns around the world showed what happens when cars stay home: cities enjoy cleaner air, better walk- and bike-ability, and even a return of wildlife. In short, they are healthier. From Los Angeles to New Delhi, residents marveled at how beautiful their cities looked without a layer of smog overhead as they breathed fresher air than they had in years.
Of course, as we recover, people will still need to move. This means rethinking how we get around in cities and replacing cars with efficient, sustainable mobility we all need.
In most cities, trucks and cars have gotten the bulk of access, design attention, and resulting infrastructure – between 40-60% of public space is often dedicated to cars, This imbalance has had dire consequences. Transport accounts for more than 25% of global CO2 emissions. Air pollution – much of it coming from tailpipes – impacts 90% of urban dwellers and contributes to roughly 8 million deaths each year according to the Max Plank Institute in Germany. A study from Europe’s Environmental Agency reports that road traffic is a top source of noise pollution, with one fifth of citizens negatively affected.
Notably, many cities with robust public transport options have struggled when it comes to the important last mile of travel throughout their communities. But one unexpected effect of COVID-19 restrictions was cities’ rediscovery of the beauty and benefits of biking and walking and micromobility, including shared bikes and electric scooters. Paris, Seattle, Bogotá, Milan, and New York, for example, quickly created temporary bike and pedestrian lanes that citizens eagerly utilized. In Mexico City new, protected bike lanes increased the number of women cyclists. And at the same time, in many cities micromobility services which by nature are socially distant, sprang up to help with that final mile of travel.
Collaborative solutions have also demonstrated that they can promote better transport equity as well. In Chicago, for example, the city relaunched an expanded shared electric scooter program and added electric bikes in underserved South and West Side neighborhoods. By working with the city’s Department of Transportation, bikes and scooters can be parked at any bike rack or pole, offering residents in less dense neighborhoods access to new mobility options.
Walking, cycling and scooting alone can’t solve urban transport’s need to get strategic and provide improved equity and accessibility to mobility solutions while aiming to achieve that important 1.5°C global climate target set forth in the Paris Agreement. For that, transport policy makers must reduce or limit cars and trucks. Strategies such as temporary or permanent calming or sharing streets to lower driving speeds, employing congestion pricing, placing levies on ride-share services, as well as rethinking personal car parking policies can all help free up streets for people for walking, biking, while making cities cleaner, quieter, friendlier and in the end, healthier.
Research from San Francisco-based Zendrive confirmed that driving decreased globally in the first weeks of the pandemic. Yet after lockdowns were lifted, driving rose back up – and Zendrive’s analysis of the first five weeks of post-lockdown driving found increases in speeding, cell phone use, and hard braking by drivers – making streets even more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users. In addition, post-lockdown, many transit users became fearful of boarding buses or hopping on subways, increasing the possibility of these citizens’ considering car purchases or hiring more cabs.
Paris offers insights into making a city’s air cleaner, and transport more equitable. The transport-minded city has welcomed e-scooters, e-cargo bikes, and e-bikes, and expanded dedicated lanes for them, while removing many on-street car parking spaces. Paris also set ambitious targets for clean city air by cutting diesel and gas vehicles by 2030, and has built 2,500 parking hubs for micromobility vehicles.
Micromobility is still evolving – with cities and operators quickly establishing norms and policies to make these programs effective. A recent OECD report on new mobility documents how shared e-scooters and e-bikes can continue to advance, further reducing the carbon impact of urban transportation.
As cities consider how to move forward from this difficult moment, they should draw on what we’ve learned as part of city lockdowns and be aggressive about reducing car and truck use, ensuring safer streets for pedestrians, cyclists and users of various micromobility services. Redesigning cities to make them healthier and more people-centric will enable cleaner, low-carbon urban mobility. If COVID-19 has a lesson for urban planners and policymakers, it’s to break the norms of urban mobility, giving way to creative, people-centered modes to pursue a sustainable transport future.
Jennifer Lenhart is the Global Lead for Cities at WWF. Andrew Savage is Vice President of Sustainability and on the founding team at Lime.
Get these stories delivered straight to your inbox