by Leticia Sabino and Louise Uchôa of SampaPé!

Article originally published in issue #33 of MONU magazine (ISBN 18603211)

Moving in the city during the pandemic

Two months and 11 days after the start of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic by COVID-19. To contain the spreading menace, people and authorities had to create collective strategies and change behaviours. This battle between virus and human kind also threatened the existence and maintenance of one of the major human creations: cities. As the symbol of diverse experiences and casual encounters between different people, urban environments were challenged to convince and in some cases enforce their population to stay at home as a primary measure to hold contagion.

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Under these circumstances, one of the central urban issues becomes even more evident and demands to be faced urgently: people’s access to basic needs such as products, services, work and healthcare. This new context put to test cities’ capability to be resilient and to provide safer and better access and movement conditions for urban residents.

In this matter, WHO recommended people and municipalities to take action in creating better conditions to stimulate most of commuting to be done by active modes: walking and cycling. The organization advocated for active modes as the best option to keep a safe distance between people, stay healthy and avoid other negative externalities — such as air pollution. On the other hand, public transport — the backbone of mobility systems in almost all major cities and usually perceived as a sustainable option — was considered unsafe and not recommended by health specialists, since it promotes gathering and crowding in a closed space for a long time. Therefore, avoiding trains, tubes and bus trips became imperative in cities.

Hence, it is noticeable that the context of the pandemic highlighted the unwalkable situation in cities around the world, from different development models and stages. While in some European cities this was evidenced mainly by the lack of spaces and the unbalanced street distribution for active transport, in major Latin American cities this was connected to unfair territorial distribution, which precludes walking distance to access basic needs.

This territorial organization common to Latin American cities, in summary, means central and high income neighbourhoods concentrate facilities and institutions (hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets), which are scarce in peripheral and low income neighbourhoods — aggravating social inequalities. Besides that, the population from peripheries are also the majority of essential workers, which have no other choice but to make long distance trips every day, not only to access services and their jobs, but also to keep cities functioning during quarantine.

Image 1: Map of formal job access by active economic population in São Paulo’s districts. It evidences how concentrated it is in the central area. Comparing the best index with the worse the inequality is 247 times. (2)

Leadership and policy decisions may also aggravate cities’ inequalities, reinforced by their systems. In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, for instance, one of the first urban mobility measures adopted by the municipalities during quarantine was to reduce the public transport fleet and capacity. With no other alternative measure combined, passengers crowded on buses and subway stations increased by 80%. (3)

Considering the urban reality imposed by the pandemic, walkable cities have become an urgent goal to contain the virus, whilst maintaining urban conviviality in the short term and building resilience in the long-term. Most of all, to be a safe environment for all people during a pandemic, cities have to provide what people need within walkable distance through good infrastructure that guarantees safe and democratic access for everyone. It is critical to eliminate long distance commutes and travels, produced by the spread and segregated current city mode, while creating space and conditions for active transport modes, especially walking.

What is walkability?

Walking and walkability are different concepts. While walking is the act of moving the body through steps, walkability is related to the conditions in which this activity is promoted in cities, considering the interaction between spatial layers such as: the built environment, the natural environment, individual feelings and other people’s behaviour. Walkability is usually used as an index to evaluate how inviting it is to walk in a city considering different urban scales — city, neighbourhood and streets — and how to improve the walking conditions through a continuous process.

On its first elaboration — 1993 by Chris Bradshaw (4) — ten topics, such as the age children walk by themselves and women’s safety, were the basis to compose an index which grades and points out what needs to be improved in the walkability of places. On a more contemporary perspective, walkability has been summarized to be measured by four key elements of the walking experience: being useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting (Speck, 2012).

Relatedly, it is possible to evidence a huge gap between European major cities’ walkability in comparison to Latin America’s. Referring to road safety, in London, 57 pedestrians were killed whilst walking (5) in 2018, whereas in São Paulo this number jumped to 349 (6). This means Sao Paulo is around 7 times more fatal for pedestrians than London. However, in South America’s biggest city (Sao Paulo), around 13 million trips are made by foot everyday, whereas in the biggest European city (London) this number is down to 6 million (7). This evidence shows how walking and walkability differ according to the urban context.

In Latin American cities, the frequency of walking as a means of transportation isn’t related to peoples’ preferences or to how favorable urban infrastructure is. In fact, for many Latin Americans, walking is the only option due to economic, urban and social reasons.

Nevertheless, whatever the context – Latin American or European – sidewalk infrastructure is a common challenge. Recent data analysis on sidewalks’ width show that the space reserved for walkers isn’t enough, they did not meet demands from before the pandemic, and will not suffice for the current and coming periods. In Sao Paulo, 73% (8) of sidewalks are less than 2.9 meters wide, meaning people walking cannot respect the minimum safe distance recommended by WHO. Curiously, Greater London has a similar number, since only 36% of sidewalks are at least 3 metres wide (9).

Image 2: Graphic of São Paulo’s sidewalk width percentage with data from Instituto Cordial (8)

As previously mentioned, the pandemic aggravated issues related to the lack of walkability. Therefore, more data and arguments in favor of better walkability have gained space and professional clout, stimulating citizens to push harder for improvements and city leaders to take action. Nonetheless, solving this problem has different challenges and outcomes.

Finding a quick way out(doors)

Responding to the issues previously described, some cities quickly took action through street transformation aiming to provide safer and more suitable environments for people to move around actively, not only for necessary activities, but also to offer options for getting outdoors during the pandemic’s social isolation phase.

The first urban tactical action, globally publicized, was the temporary cyclepath system implemented in Bogota, Colombia. The action took place on the same day the national quarantine started, March 25th, implementing around 70 km of new routes for cycling created only by cone allocation, signage, and monitoring of the busiest crossings — complementing 500 km of the existing network.

The efficiency of Bogota’s action was possible due to local leadership and active plans and contracts. Because of the city’s goal to be the most cyclable city in Latin America, several plans and actions for bikes have been built over the last years, such as a bike action plan and the municipal bike school (10). In addition, the city’s progressive female mayor propelled these quick changes.

The system was planned and implemented through phases in an emergency format, and intended to promote the modal migration of essential workers commuting, from public transport to bikes. However, the first month results showed that total everyday trips decreased during quarantine in proportion to the favourisation of active trips. Bike trips per day reduced to 200.000 (¼ compared to before the pandemic), whereas trips by transmilenio, the major public transport system, decreased 70% (11). This shift was possible due to the quick transformation of car street space into space for people on bikes, but also evidenced the unfair territorial distribution once bike trips for necessary activities exceeded 7km — highlighting the urgency of land policies for an effective and fair urban environment.

Going north, in the United States of America, another type of quick response also gained media attention and inspired other North American cities: open streets in residential areas for leisure and sports practice. Oakland, a mid-size city just besides San Francisco, started implementing residential open streets on April 11th with only four local streets. Quickly, the program became more structured and a network has been growing. In this action the main objective is to offer public spaces closer to people’s houses in which they could maintain their physical and mental wellbeing while keeping a safe distance from other people.

In a very simple operation, streets that were usually reserved for cars and other motorized vehicles — except for residents and essential services — were transformed with soft and movable traffic signs on the corners. The initiative integrated an already existing program called Oakland Slow Streets (12) in which bike routes and traffic reduction measures were being implemented. As part of the new initiative, the municipal government created an interaction channel with citizens by phone and online in which people could report problems on the open streets and also apply for their street to be part of the scheme. This can be considered very audacious, as 64% of daily commutes in Oakland were made in private cars and 82% of households have a car. The pandemic highlighted that the car dependent model of cities proved to be a failure for resident’s health, and motivated fast changes in streets with little resistance. On the contrary, these changes counted on people’s support and sometimes direct initiative.

Slowly, other cities joined the movement for healthier, safer and more sustainable streets through refurbishing asphalt areas to be more people-friendly, focused on walking and cycling space. Some outstanding cities in this process are Buenos Aires and Paris. Both cities showed a very complex and structured plan spread around the territory, inciting new urban mobility and street use paradigms. These plans also reinforced the value of neighbourhoods and compact cities, which fit the walkability principles.

Buenos Aires aimed for two types of solutions: commercial open streets and tactical sidewalk expansion in important areas for connection. The main goal was to stimulate trips within 50 blocks to be made by foot or bike — this trip length represents 40% of total daily trips (13). The plan implemented nine pedestrian zones distributed around the city, varying between two and twenty two blocks — depending on commercial density and presence. Sidewalk extension also came combined with slowing driving speeds, in order to generate safer conditions. Signage and information about the new use of streets to reinforce safe distancing were also part of the city’s preparations for gradual openings.

It must be noted that these extensive plans were not by chance. The city has been investing in walkability plans and actions since 2013, with the famous change of July 9th Avenue into a more equitable road and the “microcentro” area transformation into a 10km/h shared zone. But the urgent context of the pandemic was a clear catalyst of the city’s intentions to improve walkability.

Image 3: Emergencial open streets in Buenos Aires (14)


Image 4: New signage in Buenos Aires for operational open streets in commercial zones (15)

In Paris several solutions were also combined in order to accelerate a pre-pandemic city plan to promote the compact city concept, known as the “15 minute city” (16). The concept is to provide opportunities and access to everything citizens need within 15 minutes by bike or walking from their residence. The actions included open streets around schools, car free avenues, and a bike network connecting the metropolitan area with 750 km of bike lanes. For this plan, 72% of street parking was transformed into cycling space. The reelection of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo during the pandemic also confirms public support for the scheme, as she is a strong advocate for the 15 minute city.

London also reacted quickly by transforming public space through the Streetspace Plan (17). The plan intended to temporarily reduce public transport use by 80% through its replacement of active transport modes. Strategies included open streets or pavement extensions around commercial areas and transport hubs. Also important were connector streets that were transformed into car-free zones — where only buses, bikes and walking were permitted. Hence, the British approach chose to go in the opposite direction: one of a collective strategy, working to confront the privileged access that cars usually receive in public space.

Considering cities’ actions across the globe, not just the ones presented in this article, it is possible to classify these pandemic response solutions into five main types: open streets, sidewalk extension, street speed reduction, temporary cycle lanes and compact city actions. Each are complementary, but also depend highly on local regulations, governance and previous plans.

Expanding from the city level, two national cases of investment in tactical urbanism focused on promoting more active cities must be highlighted: the United Kingdom and New Zealand. In the UK, 2 billion pounds from the sustainable transport budget of 5 billion were redirected to walking and cycling initiatives. The first 250 million were reallocated for financing tactical and immediate actions. In addition, envisioning a long-term paradigm change, the national government created a national cycling and walking commissioner (18).

In New Zealand, a national fund called Innovating Streets for People (19) was created to deliver more than 7 million New Zealand dollars for projects that prioritize active transport modes — besides the five solutions already mentioned, it also includes parklet installation and pop up events. The fund has a participative character, since projects can be submitted by public managers, stakeholders, and the general population. In this case, New Zealand has shown that such urban actions can also be motivated and negotiated on a bigger scale.

Although many of these changes were only able to be created in a moment of extreme urgency, the majority of cities foresee these to be lasting changes that could re-image the way that urban areas are structured. These fast changes may strengthen collectivity and render people more conscious, demanding walkable and fair urban environments. As a result, the conditions of the pandemic could pave the way for a reorganization of the dense coexistence in cities in a more hamonious way, creating new ways of imagining urban life.

Future of cities

In Cities for a Small Planet, the Italian architect Richard Rogers states that we are the first global civilization (20). Therefore, we are bound to experience global periods of stress and shock, which demand resilient cities and communities to overcome the many challenges that await us. Aware of the different urban scenarios worldwide, UN Habitat elaborated the Guide for City Resilience Profiling Tool (21) to help cities build urban resilience. The guide highlights four key elements to be identified while building resilience: identity and context, local governments and stakeholders, existing challenges and urban elements — such as public spaces and mobility systems.

On this matter, Rogers also argues that the compact city can be the way to design spaces in which communities thrive, focusing on personal mobility and prioritizing pedestrians to achieve quality of life. Hence, tactical urban actions implemented during the pandemic to reassign street space could be the kickoff for walkable futures and resilient cities. However, as highlighted before, the same urban solutions cannot be realised in exactly the same way, and are intrinsically connected to each unique urban context. In Europe, the tactical redistribution of space is facilitated by more cohesive urban territory and infrastructure. Thus, these actions only need to be consolidated in order to promote walkability.

On the other hand, in Latin American cities, tactical actions are short-term solutions to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, but unlikely to stir changes in urban inequality. In this context, besides the unbalanced distribution of street space, inequality is also manifested in long travel distances and poor mobility systems to access basic services — a result of urban sprawl. Length and territorial distribution cannot be solved with wider sidewalks and cyclepaths, and can only be reversed with a set of policies to promote compact cities.

Therefore, tactical urbanism cannot be faced as a key solution to all urban challenges, but it may be the solution necessary to start significant changes in multiple urban scales as well as in people’s minds. More, walkability has to be taken seriously by authorities, planners and citizens at all city levels. Decisionmakers must lead changes and responsible policies regarding land prices, social housing, emissions, local business, and employment in order to build resilience and protect one of humanity’s greatest collective creations – the city.

A virus has made people look back and re-experience walking as a primary means of transportation. In the future, cities must provide walkable conditions to guarantee that the urban environment will continue to be a place of coexistence, co-creation and exchange. After all, being a global civilization also means that the domino effect does not stand just for a crisis. Actions, solutions and examples of success can also disseminate and multiply changes throughout the globe. Thus, a global pact for walkable cities has to be built if we want to keep evolving cities, and the fast actions and new perspectives from the pandemic situation will help to lead us there.

SampaPé! Is a brazilian NGO which acts on building more walkable cities with people since 2012. Throughout the years it has mobilized a series of actions and consultancy regarding walkability, mobility, public spaces and gender equality in Sao Paulo, where it is based, and also in other Brazilian cities, such as Curitiba.


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