• The Slow Streets Movement reallocated street space for cyclists and walkers during COVID-19.
  • Transportation should replicate the agile response of the Slow Streets movement throughout the transportation system.
  • Public infrastructure can serve changing needs once we stop seeing it as static.

After COVID-19 lockdowns, roads emptied and transit agencies either completely stopped service or drastically reduced service, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to take back streets and sidewalks. As cities reopen, we have the opportunity to reset our transportation system and take multi-mobility into account.

Moving forward, there is no guarantee that any vaccine will prevent future pandemics or other global disasters. Cities will need to create scalable ways to accommodate different types of transportation while maintaining appropriate safety norms. The ‘Slow Streets’ movement that gained steam during COVID-19 can provide key lessons learned to help cities build multi-modality and agility into new solutions.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Understanding the ‘Slow Streets’ movement

The ‘Slow Streets’ movement (sometimes dubbed “Safe Streets or “Healthy Streets”) was designed as a response to COVID-19 public health guidance that encouraged social distancing. Closed roads and low-traffic streets helped prevent overcrowding of public parks, trails, and sidewalks and allow people to explore their communities as never before through walking, jogging, biking and even wheelchair rolling. According to a crowdsourced database initiated by a transportation planner at the University of North Carolina, over 291 cities, regions and nations have created safer, people-friendly streets initiatives.

The Slow Streets movement takes advantage of one key truth: Most trips are short and close to home. According to data collected before the pandemic, 60% of journeys made in France and 46% of vehicle trips in the US are less than 3 miles (5 kilometres). In England, around 60% of 1-2 mile trips are made by car. This data suggests that while some people may still require motorized transport options, many people can walk or bike around their communities.

This movement has helped reshape cities across the US. The City of Oakland, California closed 74 miles of its streets this March – 10% of the city’s entire street grid - to through-traffic. These streets remained open to local vehicles in search of a parking space but were prioritized for Oakland residents travelling by foot or bicycle. “Oakland Slow Streets,” as they became known, became the first of their kind in the country. The program’s success helped inspire dozens of American cities to follow Oakland’s lead, establishing “Slow Streets” of their own.

And while cities across Europe have been encouraging cycle-friendly streets for years, COVID-19 accelerated the repurposing of roadways to bike lanes in cities such as Paris and even Rome. European countries have also embraced tactical urbanism, an action based approach using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions, to promote alternatives to public transportation and private cars.

Though the data to support the uptake of the slow streets is limited, many cities are noticing noticeable upticks in the visual amount of cyclists. Corresponding bike sales indicate a higher interest in outdoor activity and use of public space. For instance, the NPD Group reported that sales of adult leisure bikes were up 121% during the pandemic.

The tactical deployment of infrastructure by the public sector has resulted in more people biking and walking than ever before According to a street study conducted by Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, during shelter-in-place, “88% drive less, 61% walk more, 42% bike more.”

Building on “Safe Streets” momentum
Countries looking to continue these gains after COVID-19 lockdowns lift have taken a few different approaches. Some countries are using subsidies to encourage bike ownership. France will leverage $66 million USD program to provide a $55 USD subsidy towards the refurbishment of any bicycles available. The government plans to refurbish 1 million bikes by the end of the year. Italy has introduced a "mobility bonus" of 500 euros for the purchase of bikes, electric scooters or to be used as credit for sharing services such as Helbiz.

Countries are continuing to encourage building additional bike lanes. Municipalities across France have massively invested in over 1,000 km (620 miles) of temporary bike lanes since the beginning of pandemic restrictions in early Spring. The French government has also just announced it will provide funding to local governments to transform the temporary infrastructure into permanent safe bike lanes. Rome’s city council has approved the construction of 150 kilometers (95 miles) of temporary and permanent cycle routes on the city’s main streets and along other key routes to support social distancing as well as general health and well-being.

5 key recommendations for governments to maintain agility:
Given the movement’s popularity, key factors can be identified that could speed the adoption of agility and multi-modality in other aspects of our transportation system. Below is a list of recommendations on how to integrate these characteristics into the wider transportation system:

  • Data-driven decisions. During Slow Streets’ growth, the deployment of temporary bike lanes had its hits and misses in terms of usage. Community feedback indicated some communities needed additional focus on safety and others needed a greater focus on equitable implementation in all socioeconomic districts within a city, not just wealthy ones. For better success, governments can learn as they go, using static and dynamic data analytics technology to measure the actual usage of the infrastructure versus what was planned. A mix of public, crowd-sourced and private-operator mobility data provides municipalities with an overarching view never before available which can inform future agile policy, planning and investment decisions.
  • Consider all options. Infrastructure investment does not always have to be permanent and expensive. In fact, the tactical changes that defined Slow Streets were sometimes fairly modest – sometimes just a couple of orange cones and A-frame barricades at intersections indicating to drivers that the road was closed to through-traffic and that pedestrians and bicycles were present. Tactical urbanism has shown that government can be agile and quick in its response to transportation needs. Equally so, tactical urbanism reminds us that public space is modular and adaptable to demand. With public budgets shrinking, tactical urbanism and data-driven agility is a viable way to modify our public spaces to fit our needs, in a cost-effective manner.
  • Prioritize flexibility and multimodality. Transit loads will shift depending on the circumstances, and cities must be designed to adapt to new needs and situations. The massive adoption of bikes due to COVID-19 shows that multimodal mobility adoption is achievable. Infrastructure, however, needs to reliably provide safety, ease of use and the equity of access people need. Safe infrastructure could involve solutions such as “complete streets,” where individuals have access to safe pedestrian walkways, cyclists have dedicated bike lanes and vehicles have dedicated vehicle lanes with safe speed indicators to slow down speeding cars. More multimodal adoption is likely to generate more data which in turns will virtuously facilitate additional tactical urbanism deployment.
  • Public-private partnerships. Resiliency depends on the support of every sector, both public and private. Governments need to ensure that the alternative mobility options provided by the private sector are a reliable option to their citizens. Accordingly, the private sector needs to rely on long-term government permits to invest in teams and operations to deliver their mission and be profitable. A model of sharing data in confidence between the public and private sector will provide governments with strong agility both committed to realizing shared goals.
  • Dynamic Travel Lane Management. Real transportation network agility will require a dynamic system to manage travel lane mode uses. In an age of global pandemics, mass protests, and climate change-induced catastrophes, cities require more flexibility over how these lanes are used. In the same way that transportation authorities have begun to dynamically price freeway travel lanes to reflect user demand, governments must create systems to dynamically determine which travel modes can use which travel lanes. This can be in the form of electronic signage, easily movable road barriers, or perhaps even a new light-generated road-striping technology. This system may allow for the prioritization of bicycle mobility during a pandemic, pedestrian facilities during a protest, and emergency vehicle access during a major crisis.

Though the pandemic has been challenging, we’ve proven we can adapt and our public space can follow suit. Our world and how we conduct ourselves will inevitably differ from our pre-pandemic habits. As our new habits have agility built into them, our street infrastructure could one day be as agile as we are.

Authors contributing to this piece include: Benjamin Kaufman, Trail Development Manager at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Matteo Tanzilli, Government and External Affairs, Helbiz.