Chances, but which chances?
How will we get around once the Corona crisis is over? Is there anything worthwhile that we can say about the subject? Many opinion writers already seem to know exactly how the world is going to look. A few weeks ago, the Dutch newspaper The Volkskrant devoted a whole Saturday supplement to ‘the world after Corona’. It would seem that the experts have even better ideas about how they would like the world to look. Wishful thinking is being passed off as scientific insight.
There most certainly will be opportunities to change our mobility policy, chances to make our cities better, now that everything that was normal is no longer normal. At this point, we don’t really know what those chances will look like and really don’t know if they will be taken. We don’t know for how long this crisis will last, what the exact consequences for our communities will be, or the political movements that will arise from them. So, a little humility will certainly do no harm.
Flight traffic—the big growth engine for the international transport sector—is as good as stopped. The car industry has stalled, due to falling sales. Our streets are much emptier than usual, especially during rush hour. The (Royal Dutch Touring Club) ANWB’s traffic analysts are twiddling their thumbs. Far fewer passengers are making use of the scaled-back public transportation system. At rush hour, the number of cyclists on our roads has dropped, but risen during the day. Data from Google reports for the Netherlands show 35% less traffic commuting between home and work and 68% less traffic travelling to train stations/ public transportation hubs. On our streets, there is plenty of space to play. The air is cleaner than it has been for a very long time and noise pollution has receded. The number of traffic accidents has fallen along with the decrease in traffic.
On the whole, these seem like positive developments. It is hard to think of them in such a positive light, when they are taking place amidst such a surreal decor, a decor in which public life has almost disappeared from our cities, while nurses and doctors are working overtime to care for sick patients in our hospitals. It’s hard to see the positive sides of this crisis. On social media, the usual suspects are calling for more attention to be paid to space on our streets, cleaner air, etc.
In countries such as Germany and the United States, temporary cycling infrastructure is being built in spaces usually reserved for cars. That’s very positive, because they do not have good cycling infrastructure in those countries. There are also signs of growing numbers of cyclists, partly because people want to avoid public transportation. In the Netherlands, good cycling infrastructure is already in place, so there is less of a call to put in place temporary measures.
At the Fietsersbond, we are receiving reports that people are having trouble maintaining social-distancing measures on narrower bike paths. Pedestrians have too little on space on sidewalks as well. That strengthens our opinion that wider paths for cyclists and spaces for pedestrians are needed. That is an opportunity for our lobby. Right now, it makes sense to argue that cyclists and pedestrians ought to be able to make use of roads in places where the paths reserved for them are too narrow. When automobile traffic begins to increase as restrictions are lifted, it might be necessary to restrict car traffic; pedestrians and cyclists could then move freely and maintain social-distancing measures.
Another opportunity we see is to renovate our cycling infrastructure immediately. Doing so would help businesses through this difficult time, and there is now plenty of space to do the work well without causing much of a hindrance. Remove unnecessary traffic poles, put in place the traffic poles required by regulations, paint markings, fix shoulders and worn-down curbs. In time, that would make an enormous contribution to cycling safety.
The greatest chance that we see lies in the present rise in home-working—aided by a range of digital tools. Meetings via video call and distance learning have taken off. Maintaining some of this home-working—meeting more often by video call and teaching online—could lead to a great shift in the ways that we get about our towns and cities. Traffic jams could so good as disappear—congestion would be eliminated with just a couple of percent fewer vehicles—and rush hours on public transportation would be greatly eased.
If we take action now on these matters and maintain some aspects of our present behaviour, we will have to make far fewer large investments in highways and railways, as demand for them will fall, or rise more gradually than anticipated. We will need that money to restore our public sector, make our health-care system more resilient, rejuvenate our economy, and renovate our existing infrastructure. Since liveability, health, and sustainability will remain top priorities, building our cities differently—with more room for cyclists and pedestrians—will continue to be crucial. During this crisis, people are rediscovering the importance of social contact and of their neighbourhoods—of their direct living environments. More than ever, we need to build living environments that increase our quality of life, that make our communities more social and robust.