Pedestrians and bicyclists on Castellana Avenue, which was closed to vehicles, in downtown Madrid on May 10.

Pedestrians and bicyclists on Castellana Avenue, which was closed to vehicles, in downtown Madrid on May 10. Cesar Luis de Luca/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Pandemic Has Taken Cars Off Urban Streets. Will It Last?

With a sharp drop in auto traffic due to the coronavirus, cities around the globe have closed streets to cars and expanded pedestrian thoroughfares and bike lanes. But as life edges back to normal, will these initiatives survive, especially if virus-wary citizens shun mass transit?

On a recent spring day in San Francisco, people strolled down the middle of what used to be a busy city street. Some discussed business on their cell phones. Others toted groceries, or take-out food from nearby restaurants. Bicycles whizzed by in designated lanes on either side. Except for conversations, whirring bike and scooter wheels, chirping birds, and the occasional car crossing an intersection, it was quiet — yet abuzz with folks on the move.

The same scene has been playing out in cities around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. San Francisco, which closed 11 miles of streets to most vehicle traffic in April, has just announced it will create a “Slow Streets” network of 34 miles, so residents have room to spend time socially distanced outdoors and get around without using cars or public transit. Nearby Oakland, one of the first U.S. cities to cede car space to pedestrians and cyclists, is designating a tenth of its roads — 74 miles — as vehicle-free. Seattle has made 20 miles of roads permanently off-limits to through traffic. New York City has blocked motor vehicles on nearly 50 miles of streets so far, with plans to eventually double that.

In Europe, Paris has one of the most extensive efforts underway to recapture its streets from cars, converting more than 30 miles of major arterials, including the Rue de Rivoli — the main thoroughfare across the city center — into a network of bicycle-highways stretching all the way to the suburbs. Brussels has built nearly 25 miles of new bike paths for residents to commute on as they go back to work. From Portland to Philadelphia, London to Milan, Buenos Aires to Auckland, dozens of cities are, to varying degrees, following suit.

For the time being, at least, cities are seeing the advantage of cutting back on vehicles in their streetscape. With cars largely off the road as residents sheltered at home, walking and bicycling have increased dramatically — clearing smoggy air, triggering an unprecedented 17 percent plunge in fossil fuel emissions, and leading to a range of health benefits.

Some experts foresee a steep drop in mass transit ridership and a jump in private vehicle use.

Could the coronavirus closures signal the arrival of “peak car” for cities — the turning point when the automobile’s unquestioned rule over the urban streetscape finally begins to wane?

Indications are that it will be an uphill battle. Already traffic levels are rebounding as travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic begin to lift. And, most critically, virus-wary commuters — fearful of boarding crowded subways or buses in places like Paris, New York, and London — may turn to cars, seeing them as a safe haven from contagion. Many transportation experts foresee a steep drop in mass transit ridership and a corresponding jump in private vehicle use in large cities, challenging efforts to diminish the role of the car in metropolitan areas.

“Mass transit is good at moving a lot of people in the same direction at the same time, and that’s not good public health practice right now,” says Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studies. Transit ridership had already been declining in some American cities, including a roughly 25 percent drop in Los Angeles over the past five years, he says. The pandemic could accelerate the slide as shifts in travel during the crisis become permanent habits. “There’s going to be that residual effect of people changing behaviors and then not coming back to transit,” he says.

Nonetheless, many cities are determined to seize the moment and retool their transportation systems in the post-Covid-19 world.

“This is absolutely a time to rethink how we allocate public space,” says Sarah Kaufman, associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, who is on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s advisory council for restoring transport when the city re-opens. At the peak of the lockdown, “there was this glaring absence of vehicles on the streets,” she said. “That really made it obvious how much space had been allocated to vehicles.”

New York City, which is still largely closed, is just beginning to plan how to move people around when restrictions lift, Kaufman says. One of the most important changes will be widening sidewalks, which were narrowed in the past century to make more room for cars. Now, she said, that priority needs to be recalibrated.

Pedestrians walk on a street closed to vehicle traffic in San Francisco on May 10.

Pedestrians walk on a street closed to vehicle traffic in San Francisco on May 10. Cheryl Katz / Yale e360

“Our sidewalks are currently not wide enough for true social distancing,” says Kaufman. “They’re about 6 feet wide in most places in Manhattan, meaning that it would be impossible to stay 6 feet away from another person.”

Extending sidewalks is one of the key lessons transportation planners in New York are learning from European cities, she says. The other is converting streets to designated routes for bicycles and scooters, “which lets people move through the city without using transit and while staying socially distant.”

Paris’ new cycling thoroughfares have been getting good use since the city started to lift its travel restrictions last month. The bike lanes, which parallel parts of the city’s Metro system and lead out to the glass-and-steel skyscrapers in the business power center of La Defense, are coaxing executives out of their cars and onto bicycles, says Carlos Moreno, a professor at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne.

Moreno is the designer of the “15-Minute City,” part of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to keep cars from re-taking the city. The blueprint, unveiled just before the Covid-19 virus swept through Europe, aims to reconstruct neighborhoods so that the things residents need most — places to work, shop, dine, and go for health care, education, and exercise, are available within a 15-minute walk of their homes. Moreno says the lockdown, during which Parisians’ travel was confined to a one-kilometer radius of their residence, underscored the importance of what he calls “démobilité” — minimizing the need for automobiles.

And in London, a new network of walking and cycling routes called “Streetspace” — launched earlier this month — is designed to handle a ten-fold increase in bicycles and a five-fold rise in pedestrians, to keep people from hopping back into their cars or flooding the city’s mass transit system as the pandemic wanes. London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced plans to block traffic in much of the city center, creating one of the world’s largest metropolitan car-free zones. London has also reinstated its congestion charge levied on cars driving into the central city, which had been lifted during the lockdown. The already hefty fee may be increased to £15 (more than $18) per trip.

Many people who were able to work from home may continue to skip the daily commute.

In some cities, the pandemic has added a new urgency to low-carbon transportation plans that were already in the works. In Minnesota’s capital city of Saint Paul, providing more space for bicycles and pedestrians and getting more cars off the streets is “going to be our new normal,” Mayor Melvin Carter, a member of Climate Mayors, an association of U.S. cities dedicated to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, said last month. St. Paul had already committed to cutting vehicle miles traveled by 40 percent by 2040, adding 20 miles of new bike lanes this year, and starting one of the nation’s first electric car sharing services, aimed at low-income residents.

“A lot of the things aren’t new for us,” Carter says, “but they put a spotlight on why we need to do the things we do.”

Scores of other cities around the world have taken temporary measures to support walking and cycling during the lockdowns, such as creating bike loan programs and improving infrastructure for non-motorized travel. Tabitha Combs, a transportation planning researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has compiled a database of actions, says new measures are being rolled out regularly.

The big question is how much of that will continue post-Covid-19.

“I’m hopeful that people who are new to getting around their cities by walking and bicycling will want to continue that, and their cities will support that,” Combs says. “I think we’re seeing that in a lot of European cities. I’m not as confident that we’re seeing that much in the U.S. It seems like most of what we see in the U.S. is still a crisis response.”

As the crisis lifts, however, car use appears poised to rebound. In mid-April, traffic was down more than 70 percent from normal levels across the United States, and 90 percent or more in major cities in Europe. But by May, it had risen by at least 15 percent from its nadir in U.S. cities, and increased by varying amounts in European ones. Car sales had been virtually nonexistent during the quarantines. But now in China, which entered and exited lockdown ahead of the rest of the world, auto sales are reportedly climbing, while transit use hasn’t fully recovered.

Passengers on a Bangkok commuter train with seats marked for social distancing last month.

Passengers on a Bangkok commuter train with seats marked for social distancing last month. Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP via Getty Images

“The special challenge here is that cars are becoming more appealing in this crisis,” says New York University’s Kaufman. “But we still have the climate crisis in the background, which is directly opposed to using personal cars.”

The widespread changes in work and travel behavior wrought by the virus will ease the demand for car travel at least somewhat, experts say. Many people who were able to work from home during the lockdowns will continue to skip the daily commute, says transportation researcher Fraser Shilling, who co-directs the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis and tracks the impacts of Covid-19 lockdowns on traffic. And in general, the pandemic has made people think twice about whether a trip is necessary before they hit the road. “Maybe taking fewer trips will become a new kind of habit,” Shilling says.

But that may well be countered by people shunning public transit out of fear of catching the novel coronavirus, he adds.

In fact, a model by Vanderbilt University engineering professor Dan Work and colleagues suggests that cities with high mass transit ridership before the pandemic will see many more cars on the road post-Covid, as people who formerly took transit or carpooled switch to solo driving. Driving times are likely to increase substantially if transit operations and passenger loads don’t quickly return to normal, says Work — especially in already congested cities like San Francisco and New York.

Metropolitan transit agencies face an especially rough road going forward. Ridership is now down an average of 90 percent in the U.S., says Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association. Lost fares and greatly diminished revenues from sales taxes and other public funding sources decimated by the stalled economy have been “devastating” to mass transit systems, he says.

Public transport agencies are planning how to restore rider confidence in the post-pandemic era.

During the lockdowns, transit agencies have focused primarily on serving essential riders, such as people needing transportation to jobs in hospitals. Others have been dissuaded from riding, to minimize contagion.

Now, says Skoutelas, the industry is planning how to restore rider confidence and reinvent itself for the post-pandemic era. New protocols for cleaning are being set. Both riders and bus and subway drivers in many cities may be required to wear face masks. Dividers are being installed between passengers and drivers, along with touchless pay systems. The association is developing a set of best practices as guidance, such as limiting passenger loads to around 10 riders on a city bus and 25 on a train. And to make up for the reduced capacity, many cities will be running trains and buses more frequently.

“Of course, that’s a real challenge for the agencies,” Skoutelas says. “It’s very costly to operate more supply than the demand warrants.”

Recognizing the need to draw people back onto buses and trains when the crisis subsides, Philadelphia has “begun to explore policy interventions to support the increased use of public transit,” Mayor Jim Kenney, said in an emailed statement. Normal schedules are now being restored in Philadelphia, and the city plans to create more bus-only lanes and revise routes and schedules to make the system more efficient. Philadelphia and many other cities have also instituted daily deep disinfecting for transit vehicles. Some cities are considering temperature checks and other health measures for employees.

Ultimately, whether the pandemic spurs a transition from cars to more sustainable urban transportation depends on the decisions cities make coming out of the crisis.

“It’s a question of priority,” says UCLA’s Wasserman. “Is driving going to get priority in every lane of every street in a city, or is there going to be a more equitable distribution? That‘s a question for our urban policy makers and decision makers to decide. During the pandemic, I’ve been pleased to see that some have been rethinking that.”

Elisheva Mittelman provided reporting for this article.