As the number of cars on U.S. roads decreases, it is time to rethink how we use our roadways
In March, when stay-at-home orders were implemented in many areas of the U.S., parking lots and streets seemed to disappear overnight. In just a few days, cities across the U.S. began repurposing these spaces for other purposes that better-suited people.
Since I became a professor in environmental design and transportation, I have spent decades trying to understand the factors that keep people dependent on cars, trucks, and SUVs. Many factors discourage people from using bicycles as a mode of transportation. With a simple step, such as reconfiguring city streets, meaningful change can be made to the traditional transportation barrier and usher in an alternative culture that uses other means of transport than cars.
The expensive and dangerous automobile
Nearly half of all trips in large U.S. urban areas are shorter than four miles. The costs of driving short distances are high.
Consider, for example, traffic deaths. In the U.S., two pedestrians or bicyclists are killed every hour in city streets. This trend has been worsening over recent years, although cycling and walking rates have been stable or declining. The pollution from cars is a major contributor to climate change, and it also worsens the air quality. The design of cities around cars marginalizes those who do not have them.
The COVID-19 epidemic offers an opportunity for cities around the world to change their street usage.
I think it’s time to stop the grab-the-keys mentality, just as millennials and GenXers are already doing. New visions of streets are becoming more popular, with cars taking up less space and being replaced by smaller vehicles designed for individuals.
These modes of transportation could be new ebikes or hoverboards. These new vehicles, which were already attracting attention prior to COVID-19, complement traditional bicycles, whose sale has boomed since the pandemic.
New thinking leads to different results
In the current urban planning, it is becoming clear that relying solely on cars for transport is no longer an option. It is possible to reuse existing infrastructure to ensure that can reach services by modifying it minimally.
These opportunities can be delivered by new forms of mobility and changing mentalities. Bicycles, and vehicles that look like bicycles, can help change the way city streets are used.
Researchers have found that people are more likely to adopt new methods of travel when they feel confident about the safety of an entire route. This includes intersections and parking areas. The COVID-19 street changes, like reducing traffic lanes or closing streets for traffic that have been implemented recently, are a great first step. They lack the network component.
As more people use networks, they develop faster. To build a network that is scalable and designed for people, the fastest way to do so is to identify streets where short trips are made. This is near retail districts in the neighborhood, schools, and other activity centers.
Leaders can use local data to make decisions on which streets are more suitable for bicycles than cars. These changes could include physically delineated lanes, signs that say “Cars are guests,” and even physically delineated lanes.
The U.S. is now experimenting with new strategies to address long-standing concerns about the streets that should be changed. Minneapolis, for example, has shut down a number of parkways for cars and reserved them exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians.
Cities like Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Oakland have been using this time to test new ways to share a wider array of streets between cyclists, pedestrians, and car users. Researchers provide tools to identify the best places to reallocate spaces for pop-up cycle ways.