April 13, 2020
Five Temporary COVID Measures that US Cities Should Make Permanent
The tragedies brought about by COVID-19, and the measures to prevent more, have also brought about extreme disruptions and changes to our daily lives. Some of these changes, however, might hold value after the crisis ends.
Over the past month, as the spread of COVID-19 has upended daily life throughout the United States, cities have been grappling with how to adjust their transit systems and streetscape. As in other nations, US cities face the daunting tasks of keeping people apart, while keeping transit running. In the US, essential workers are disproportionately low income, and many are dependent on public transit for their commutes. US cities have quickly implemented all sorts of temporary measures to keep cities moving while taking precautions to flatten the curve. In this unfortunate circumstance, transport advocates see an opportunity for organic “pilot” projects. Here are five temporary measures we’d like to see made permanent.
All-Door Bus Boarding
Cities from Los Angeles to Boston have moved to allow riders to board buses differently. In some cases, this is through the rear door to protect the driver and minimize contact during boarding, and others have opened all-door boarding entirely. In addition to supporting physical distancing measures, all-door boarding also reduces wait times at stops by more than 30 percent, speeding up the entire trip for all passengers.
In many of these cases, transit operators have eliminated fare collection. For this improvement to be made permanent, cities would need to create off-board fare collection systems. These do not need to be large and expensive metro-style turnstiles. In fact, doing what most US light rail systems already do: all-door boarding with proof-of-payment fare control, would enable this permanently. The majority of transit rides in most US cities are made on local buses, and this is an easy and inexpensive way to speed up slow bus services for millions of Americans every day.
As of this writing, only Oakland, CA has come close to matching the commitments of cities like Mexico City and Bogota, who both opened up huge swaths of city streets for bikes. Cycling has emerged as the most efficient mode of individual city travel during COVID. Cities that have invested in bike share systems and cycling infrastructure over the past decade, such as New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago have seen their systems surge in demand. They have added bikes, and made their systems free entirely or for essential workers, and some have used tactical urbanism methods to protect cyclists from cars in areas known for road safety problems.
We shouldn’t need a pandemic to see the value of growing cycling mode share, and prioritizing cycling for both the health of the city and the safety of cyclists. In order to continue to grow cycling as the pandemic ebbs, cities must improve their streets, and make bikes more available to everyone who wants them. For more details, check out ITDP’s Grow Cycling Toolkit.
Eliminating “beg buttons” from pedestrian crossings
Thousands of people touching the same button in order to cross the street on foot is a clear transmission risk, so cities of all sizes, from Los Angeles to Brookline, MA, have switched to timers, eliminating the need to touch. This model, already in use in most major world cities including New York City, enables the planning of traffic patterns to accommodate high-pedestrian traffic areas. Transport advocates refer to these as “beg buttons” to illustrate the unequal relationship between pedestrian and car. Imagine if cars had to stop, press a button, and wait in order to drive through pedestrian-oriented space? Timers indicate that these rights are shared, not dependent on the permission of drivers.
Frequently Cleaning Vehicles and Stations
Keeping stations and vehicles clean and disinfected is incredibly important in a pandemic, of course, and should be higher now than ever. However, the importance of keeping transit and stations clean is essential to growing ridership in the future. People feel safer and more comfortable in transit spaces that are regularly cleaned, and the common perception among Americans of transit as dirty, and therefore unsafe is a major barrier. Unfortunately, as city budgets are stretched, regular cleaning is often the first thing to be reduced. Transit riders deserve clean, safe, and well-maintained spaces all of the time, not just during a public health emergency.
Make More Space for Pedestrians
While US cities have been slow to make more space for pedestrians, some progress has been made in cities such as Philadelphia, Oakland, Brookline, MA, Minneapolis and Denver. While public health advice on social distancing and who should go outside, and how may change, there is no question that more space for people in cities is desperately needed, today and in the future. The value of exercise, and the mental health benefits of simply going outside are clearer now than they may ever have been, and many Americans are realizing just how city space is dedicated to cars, or even just to free parking. Making street closures permanent, or even just one day a week, has been a major goal of urbanists over the last several years, and significant progress has already been made. Hopefully, this moment will help grow political support for more equity on our streets.
The only thing we can be 100 percent certain about the future cities is that they will change. Whether it’s a global pandemic, the impacts of climate change, or an air quality crisis, cities must be increasingly resilient. A people-centered focus, along with a robust transport network and real options for everyone to choose more sustainable modes of travel, is the best defense we have. These measures are a very good start.