According to UNSW Built Environment lecturer Dr Mike Harris, the coronavirus is exposing problems with our vehicle-dominated street designs that existed long before the pandemic. 

Reducing the emphasis on cars and making more room for people to walk and cycle are just some of the ways streets could change for the better in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, says Harris.

“It’s showing the disproportionate amount of street space dedicated to cars, because all that space set aside for cars is now sitting idle, while our footpaths aren’t wide enough for people walking, especially under social distancing guidelines,” he says. 

“People are also using their local streets more because they’re working from home. So we’re living more locally and recognising more the need for better quality streets for our quality of life.”

The need for wider footpaths

The pandemic is highlighting the importance of immediately accessible open space and walking and cycling facilities that many parts of Sydney lack, he says. 

“One of the arguments behind widening footpaths is so you can have space to pass people more easily, and with social distancing, it’s really shown just how narrow common footpath widths are,” he says. “Even in our densest areas, many are about one and a half metres wide, next to an expanse of asphalt for cars.”

Footpaths should ‘arguably be at least double that width’, he says, and that’s before we add planting, trees, seating and bike lanes.

“There is so much that streets can do but are often so limited from all the space excised to move and store cars. It’s remarkably short-sighted when you think about it.”

In addition to widening footpaths, separated bicycle lanes and closing streets to cars are some of the other short-term streetscape measures cities around the world have taken to adjust to increased street activity.

“Most cities were already installing separated bicycle lanes, better pedestrian amenity. Like many trends, COVID-19 is increasing the speed of how these things get implemented,” he says.

Cities around the world are readily adopting temporary measures, with local councils in Sydney likely to follow suit. 

More cycleways, fewer cars

Bike sales have also increased dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic. While overall transport usage in the City of Sydney is down to 13 percent, cycling is only down to 60-90 percent of prior rates, Harris says.  

Surveys are showing that the majority of people think things are better with fewer cars; less pollution, quieter and safer streets, for example, he says.

“It’s an opportunity for a lot of people to consider riding a bike, at least for some trips or part of their trip, and a portion of them will want to keep doing it … but as is the case now most of those people will claim they want to, but can’t because there are not enough facilities,” he says.

He says we should invest in a greater number of smaller, easily delivered projects like cycleways, which have more local job creation and less financial and environmental costs. 

“It’s definitely time, as the Committee for Sydney is now urging. Less than $10 per person, per year, is spent on cycling infrastructure in Sydney, compared to $41 in London and $50 for Vancouver.”

Investing for the next crisis

Harris says that while reverting back to the vehicle-dominated streets would be easy, the rare opportunity to make our streets more liveable shouldn’t be squandered. 

“What will need to happen is for the government to take the opportunity, while it’s there, to make some real changes,” he says. “If nothing much happens, with the passing of time, and if structural changes haven’t occurred in our streets, then slowly things will probably just go back to normal.” 

He says doing so will have lasting impacts that could better prepare the built environment to endure a future crisis.

“There’s a long history of open space being used and transformed in response to public health crises. Planning for New York's Central Park began in the immediate aftermath of New York's second cholera outbreak in the mid-1800s, along with wider urban boulevards,” he says. 

“One of the reasons cities in the Netherlands or Denmark are so pedestrian-friendly, cycling-friendly cities today is because the government made concerted decisions to rely less on cars after the 1970s oil crisis. They recognised it was a vulnerable and costly transport mode and made a series of policy decisions and planning changes, that a couple of decades later, you see these profound results of very healthy, engaging, prosperous, people-friendly cities.

“What smart cities will do is make use of this opportunity and enact intelligent decisions that in 20 years will make their cities better-quality places to live and work.”

Image: The Light Rail at George Street in Sydney's CBD should reduce congestion in the CBD. Photo: Shutterstock/UNSW.