In Transit to a Better Urban Economy
Urban spaces have long provided the possibility of gathering and mixing with people different than ourselves, and expanding our local network of acquaintance. We are social animals, and living physically in one another’s presence is good for our health – and for the economic health of our communities.
To accommodate shelter in place, we witnessed dramatic changes to urban design and transit; those are further evolving now to facilitate return to economic and social activity. Expansion of public space, and a change in the mix of transit choices, are giving us an amazing opportunity to experiment with innovative urban design. In combination with the pressing need for housing, we may have a chance to “beta test” a more equitable, enjoyable, and still beneficial urban density.
Some areas of the economy have been able to continue virtually, shifting office activity to extra space in private homes – but many cannot. Transit for commute, and the ability to participate in a vibrant local commercial area complete with restaurants and other forms of social gathering, have been painfully curtailed during shelter-in-place. As we open up commercial activity again, there are many innovative and encouraging practices supporting vibrancy and social distancing at the same time.
Pop-up bike lanes: the alternate commute
Cities everywhere have discovered that “if you open it, they will come.”1 They will dust off old bikes, pump up limp tires, rent shareable bikes, and take to the streets. In just ten days in early March in New York City, the city’s bike share program had an additional 200,000 rentals over the previous year.2 Later in March, Berlin joined cities as varied as Paris, Bogota, Budapest and Vancouver in deciding to create “pop up” bike lanes.
Both public transit use and individual vehicle traffic has been down significantly since the pandemic began, and bicycles are moving in to use the open space now available. A study from 2011 found that streets plus surface parking in a handful of municipalities totaled over 50% of all available real estate; commonly about 40% is devoted to streets.3 And open space is what’s needed for social distancing. In Berlin added space for bike lanes has indeed been taken largely from lanes previously used for free car parking.
In Budapest, large swaths of main traffic arteries have been converted to create an integrated bicycle lane network. In New Zealand, “tactical urbanism” 4 projects like pop-up bike lanes and sidewalk extensions into parking lanes were already being used on a trial basis before the pandemic hit. Here in the Bay Area, San Francisco had closed Market Street to private traffic at the end of January. In the seven weeks prior to shelter-in-place, traffic there had calmed considerably.5
With more street space available, and a safer traffic experience, existing bike and scooter rental services have reported significant increases. After coronavirus restrictions went into effect, some cities – such as Budapest – have dropped the cost of rental bikes as well. Beyond rentals, bicycle sales are booming. In Sydney, “bicycles are the new toilet paper,” and everyone wants a piece.6 Even for the less athletic among us, we are choosing to go more mobile: electric bike sales increases in April range from +90% to +300% across the US, Canada, and northern Europe.7
The benefits to local commerce with increased bicycle traffic have been documented before the pandemic as well: cyclists spend on average 3 times more than car drivers at local businesses, correlating cycling infrastructure with higher retail sales.8 Our local commercial areas, though, particularly those outside of major downtowns, are suffering from the lack of density that social distance demands. They need more if we are to support their economic viability.
Pop up restaurants, open walkways: a summer experiment
New projects are opening up lightly used street and off-street parking to retail use itself, notably for restaurant spacing. Vilnius, Lithuania was an early pioneer of using streets and plazas to create “a vast open-air café” and allow restaurants and bars to continue serving the public. That example inspired Bay Area cities San Jose, San Mateo and Berkeley to partner with local businesses to identify which streets to close and where to most effectively set up tables, with the intention of taking advantage of summer weather to better support local businesses.9
Municipalities are getting creative, whether using street parking for restaurant extensions, or closing park boulevards such as Martin Luther King Jr Drive in Philadelphia, and John F Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to car traffic to make space for pedestrians. Cities need to use public space differently, and in doing so are going beyond open-air cafes to create a multi-faceted global experiment in open-air urban revitalization.
Resilient civic life
Shared experience is the foundation of a successful polity, opines the New York Times.10 The coronavirus pandemic is giving us all shared experience, even if we are “alone, together.” Meanwhile, policy makers are “together, alone” in geographies as disparate as Louisville, KY and Copenhagen, Denmark as they radically accelerate timelines for developing and implementing public policy. Rapid change can be disconcerting, but as policy development proceeds with reduced red tape, it allows cities to respond to their communities’ needs more effectively.
There is no grand plan, but every little experiment helps us see productive ways forward, and supports us all feeling a little more normal. As the policy response loosens long-held assumptions and in-place regulations alike, we have the chance to reconsider how we organize ourselves, and assess choices between quality of life, social equity, and economic innovation. The path forward is open-ended, and exciting.
1 See Twitter video from the Urban Cycling Institute in Paris showing heavy use of additional temporary bike lanes: https://twitter.com/fietsprofessor/status/1262280924789645318.
2 Winnie Hu, “A Surge in Biking to Avoid Crowded Trains in NYC,” The New York Times, March 14, 2020.
3 Charlie Gardner, “We Are the 25%: Looking at Street Area Percentages and Surface Parking,” OLD urbanist, December 12, 2011.
4 Matthew Chandler, “How COVID-19 Has Caused ‘Pop-Up’ Bike Lanes to Appear Overnight,” Discerning Cyclist, April 18, 2020 & updated May 15, 2020.
5 Laura Bliss, “What Happened After Market Street Went Care-Free,” Citylab, March 10, 2020.
6 Justine Landis-Handley, “’Bicycles are the new toilet paper’: bike sales boom as coronavirus lockdown residents crave exercise,” The Guardian, US Edition, April 21, 2020.
7 Thomas Ricker & Andrew J Hawkins, “Cities Are Transforming As Electric Bike Sales Skyrocket,” The Verge, May 14, 2020.
8 Alejandro Schwedhelm, Wei Li, Lucas Harms and Claudia Adriazola-Steil, “Biking Provides a Critical Lifeline During the Coronavirus Crisis,” World Resources Institute, April 17, 2020.
9 Eve Batey, “Berkeley Will Fully Close Its Streets to Create Giant Outdoor Dining Rooms,” Eater San Francisco, May 14, 2020.
10 Editorial Board, “The Cities We Need,” The New York Times, May 11, 2020.
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