As we start to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe, Asia and North America, we are witnessing a true paradigm shift. What has been the loftiest aspiration of urbanists the world over is now coming to fruition: cities are rapidly becoming more human-centric.
As a direct result of the immediate lockdown of our urban environment, halt of economic activity, and suspension of mobility, governments have had a chance to look at re-setting the very fabric and long-term sustainability of cities.
This intervention began on an incremental scale in late March, with multiple proposals to create temporary ‘pop up’ bike lanes in Berlin and car-free zones in Milan. But then within the course of a few weeks, cities the world over were looking to take this opportunity to wrest back control from the automobile.
This is where the ‘open streets’ movement really started to take off. Oakland, California with its closure of 75 miles of streets to automobiles for cycling and pedestrian activities was the catalyst for similar programmes implemented in New York, San Diego, Lisbon and elsewhere.
London also announced plans in May to ban cars on its busiest roads and increase the congestion charge imposed on vehicles in the centre of the city. However, it is yet to be determined how long this will last, and what the implications of such infrastructure changes will be.
Car-free streets boost business
From an economic development and real estate perspective, it has been proven over time that the introduction of walkable (car-free) streets boosts commercial activity and serves as an anchor for pedestrians and cyclists. In safe and open environments, people tend to socialise more, stay longer, and ultimately spend more money (which is a boon to tax revenue).
These quality of life boosting initiatives are naturally aspects that improve a city’s attractiveness to foreign investors, enabling governments to accelerate their development plans through collaboration with the private sector.
The ongoing tension between auto-centric versus people-centric cities is a challenge that urbanists have been grappling with for the past 75 years. What the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us is that with a halt to the status quo, we can rethink the very functions and desired outcomes of cities for their inhabitants.
One of these opportunities is to advocate for the permanent shift in mobility infrastructure to facilitate active transportation, multi-modality, and human-centric cities. By analysing the behaviour of people in car-free settings, we can quickly ascertain the costs and benefits to such physical interventions.
Both the public and private sector have much to gain from this transformation, which will serve as the basis to help undo many of the mistakes made post-WW2, by giving automobiles priority over human beings.
Scott Shepard is chief business officer with Iomob, a Barcelona-based platform that connects public transport systems with private mobility service providers.