Updated: Jan 29
As the pandemic has progressed, planners have been experimenting with measures that lower the spread of the virus and address the negative economic impacts that have resulted. While urban life may not yet be able to go on as usual, many people still need to go to work and also spend leisure time outside their homes. This post details five temporary, easily implemented urban design solutions that allow residents to travel and relax more safely and comfortably during this stressful time, and help make life feel a bit more normal.
Creative Reuse of Car-Centric Outdoor Spaces
Many people are working remotely and driving far less than usual. The number of vehicle miles driven in May was 25.5% less than last year, according to the National Safety Council. While that’s great in many ways, less cars on the road has unfortunately caused those who are driving to behave more erratically. The same National Safety Council study also found that the fatality rate per miles driven in May jumped 23.5% from 2019. Not only is more space needed to accommodate the increased number of pedestrians and cyclists on urban roadways, but it’s vitally important that these spaces be safe for all road users. The following urban design interventions help provide safe spaces on roadways without requiring infrastructure investment, only requiring a shift in how cities prioritize public road space.
Transportation independence is vital, meaning people can travel to their destination without worrying about their risk of exposure or hassle. One way to ensure that is through ensuring streets are accessible for all forms of transit and less congested, especially because a study found a strong association between car commuting and the growth in cases in New York City. However, as public transit funding is scarce and expanding service is out of the question for many cities with increasingly tight budgets, short-term solutions must focus on increasing accessibility for forms of micromobility such as cycling, walking, and skating.
One movement that has been addressing this in recent months is the Slow Streets initiative, with the goal of reducing vehicle speeds to make streets safer for walking, biking, and running through temporary measures such as the installation of barriers, signage, and designating certain streets for local traffic only. It has been implemented in cities around the US, including Columbus, with the recognition that the majority of trips are short and close to home, making a car unnecessary. And during the pandemic, with so many stuck at home, cycling and walking has greatly increased. A number of the following design initiatives have been implemented as part of Slow Streets, such as road closures and overflow sidewalk space.
Streateries (also spelled as streetery) are added or extended outdoor restaurant seating areas in place of street parking. Hoboken, NJ adopted streateries as part of a program called Summer Streets, where certain street sections are closed on select Thursday evenings and Sundays. These measures were especially necessary after Hoboken saw a spike in coronavirus cases after reopening businesses at the beginning of July. This type of measure could be adopted in all cities with increasing cases that do not want to shut down entirely.
Similar to streeteries, parklets are another creative reuse of space currently allocated for on-street parking of private vehicles. The parklet shown below, in Boise, provides outdoor seating and recreation space, or can be filled with plants and provide a small nature escape in the middle of a dense city. Some cities are asking adjacent business-owners to apply for use of the street for expanded seating, while other cities may be more proactive in allocating this space for public use.
3. Road closures
Whether it be only for through traffic or a full road closure, it can make travelling much safer for alternative transportation modes. Additional signage can designate the road for pedestrians and bikes, such as the one below, giving them priority over cars.
Below is an example of a Slow Streets initiative in San Francisco. The city initially closed select streets to vehicular traffic in April as part of its own Slow Streets program and further expanded it in July, due to its success in reducing sidewalk crowding and increasing accessibility for micromobility–skateboarding included.
4. Overflow sidewalk space
The widening of sidewalks is an expensive and time-consuming fix, but temporary widening by allocating overflow space can give pedestrians additional space to social distance with the simple placement street barriers. This can help people walking at different speeds safely pass one another and prevent people from walking too closely to others.
5. Pop-up bike lanes
With the increase in popularity of biking during the pandemic, it can be difficult for roads built for cars to accommodate all the new bikers and still ensure proper social distancing is possible. In the example below, in Berlin, a section of the street was sectioned off to be a temporary bike lane. It can be dangerous to have cyclists and pedestrians sharing the same space, so it’s beneficial to have separated bike lanes. The lanes pictured below are specifically designed to be wide enough to allow for proper social distancing between bikers.