I hope this finds you healthy, with your family, and perhaps even thriving during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Spring Break 2020 will probably be memorable for what does NOT happen and where you DON’T go. But hopefully there are ways for you to enjoy your surroundings, get outside for a bike ride, and enjoy some cleaner air in your community.
COVID-19 has been the ultimate disrupter, upending just about every aspect of our lives and making this event deeply personal for everyone. This week I’d like to focus on the impact of the coronavirus disruption by looking at two positive developments — emergence of bike networks on existing city infrastructure, and the decrease of pollution where communities have been closed down and quarantined.
Transition to Alternate Transportation
As we discussed last week, New York City is adding more space for cyclists and bike delivery, to support the sudden shift to small individual transport modes on their streets. Bogotá, Colombia has added 76 kilometers of cycle lanes practically overnight to accommodate more riders and social distancing. Cities such as Mexico City and London are seeing the benefits of many years spent growing their cycling networks and are moving to make temporary cycling measures permanent. Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Calgary, and Minneapolis have prohibited cars on certain streets. Anecdotally, there are stories everywhere of people switching from transit trips to cycling and e-scooters, where these modes are available.
During our global pandemic, cities around the world have recognized it makes sense to take road space that is usually used for moving and storing cars and instead give it to people. They’re reallocating the right-of-way from travel lanes and parking to create emergency bikeways for essential workers, and open space where residents can safely walk, bike, and exercise, with sufficient room for “social distancing.”
Unfortunately, Chicago has moved in the opposite direction. Last week the mayor closed the city’s most important routes for car-free transportation and recreation because of overcrowding and failure of citizens to practice social distancing. Rather than alleviating the pressure of new bikers by establishing protected bike lanes on streets, Chicago opted to close some of the most important bicycle arteries of the city.
Early in March, NASA released these dramatic images over China that showed significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during the Wuhan lockdown. This drop in local pollution is mainly due to shuttering of factories and residents sheltering in place as a consequence of the coronavirus outbreak.
In Italy, the Lombardy region of the north is known as one of the most polluted areas in Europe in terms of air quality. Now that Italy is on national lockdown, the highly industrialized region of Lombardy has seen a drastic improvement in air quality. Allowing for meteorological factors, the reduction is a direct consequence of the reduced traffic and economic activity in the region.
Environmental Impact of Coronavirus Should be Made Permanent
It appears that a drastic reduction in economic activity and vehicular traffic can lead to an immediate improvement in air quality. What is encouraging is that municipalities can see a result in their greening efforts in days, not months or years. While halting economic activity and limiting transportation are not sustainable or viable solutions, it is worth considering how to conduct business in a way that is more balanced with the environment, and ultimately, with our health.
So what happens when the pandemic eventually passes? Do these changes in our national fabric become a side-note like the tin and rubber collectors of World War II? Many, if not most, people will eventually return to public transit and driving to work if the infrastructure remains the same. Cities and communities have an opportunity now to make permanent some COVID-19 mititigation measures that encourage biking, micromobility, bicycle delivery, and traffic calming techniques. Think about it. If we all adopted a greener way of doing business, almost paradoxically, the better air quality might allow our bodies to be stronger and potentially be more efficient at battling unwarranted respiratory viruses like COVID-19.
Shellback6 is GrüneStrasse’s regular blog contribution to the Bike to Work and Alternative Transportation Movement. Comments, suggestions, and dissenting points of view welcome!