Moving Around in the City: What Changes

by Alexandra Pacurar

Talks of easing lockdown measures are intensifying and some states have already started reopening the economy, despite the existing threat of a spike in COVID-19 cases. While for many this is the long-awaited sign of hope that life is going back to normal, we couldn’t be further from it. How will life in the city look like in the following months, years?

While it can be hard to paint a clear picture, measures already implemented in countries such as Italy—one of the hardest hit European countries by the coronavirus outbreak—can help us get an idea of what we might expect here in the U.S. One of the first and most important things that will be impacted by the social distancing measures, still very much in effect, despite easing of stay-at-home orders, is how we get around in the city. Public transportation has been one of the most debated aspects of urban living these past weeks and rightfully so.

The significant drop in passengers has led to income losses that make functioning, even at low capacity, almost impossible. The U.S. and the U.K. are among the few states that have allocated significant amounts to support public transport operations. This is essential to make sure that urban activity doesn’t collapse. As international public transit consultant Jarrett Walker recently wrote, the goal of transit, right now, is not competing for riders nor providing a social service, but to help prevent the collapse of civilization. While still not considered an essential service in many countries, the system is extremely important for workers in essential categories. The bus, tram, subway, light rail trains are used by doctors, police staff, grocery shop workers, delivery men and women who are currently indispensable in the fight against the spread of the virus.

At the same time, public transit vehicles are seen as a potential mechanism that could lead to an increase of coronavirus cases. This, together with social distancing requirements, is exactly what makes the use of the system challenging going forward. We put together a list of anticipated changes as more and more people resume their “normal” activity and starting commuting again. Italy is serving as a model in this respect, with several measures already implemented for passengers’ safety.

How will public transit change in the future?

The number of people allowed on the bus, trains and other vehicles will be restricted to make sure that everyone can keep the six-foot distance.

Stations and boarding stops will be marked so that people will not wait too close to each other. Extra staff and surveillance will be key to avoid congestion.

Despite the reduced number of passengers, an increased number of vehicles will continue to operate in order to accommodate social distancing. Some seats might be marked so that people won’t sit next to each other.

Tickets and passes will only be purchased online. Some public transport agencies are considering free fares or time slots where transport is free so that people do not crowd when scanning tickets.

New rules for boarding and exiting. This is already happening in many states. For example, in some places, boarding is not possible using the front door of the bus anymore in order to protect the driver.

Hygiene and disinfection will become a priority. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be available for passengers in stations and even in trains or buses, which will be cleaned and disinfected more often.

Cities will prioritize alternative transport. Milan in Italy is a great example. The local government will expand bike lanes and walkways on 22 miles of streets for the summer, prioritizing bicycles and pedestrians. Bogota, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Budapest and Berlin are among cities with similar initiatives. This is a great opportunity for cities to rethink public transit and shift to a more sustainable approach.

Another example from Italy is Bologna. The city requested financial support from the country’s government to purchase e-bikes and electric scooters. City residents are expected to prefer such vehicles to get around in order to avoid being in a bus or a subway with other people. The move towards greener ways to get around is considered one of the most important movements generated by the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Paris also stands out with a firm position on not allowing cars to reinvade the city once the lockdown is over.

Other aspects of city life that are expected to change

Shopping. Access of shoppers will be restricted and staff will wear protection masks.

Events. Whether public or private, when gatherings will be allowed again, the number of participants will continue to be limited.

Government operations, activity of public institutions, banks. Similar to shops, access inside these spaces will be limited. More and more operations will be digitalized.

Schools. Online classes will become regular and spaces in schools and universities will be reorganized.

Office work. When office work will resume, employees will need to be spread out. This is why, most likely, not everyone will go back to work at the same time. Work-from-home will continue and office space design will be reconsidered (bye, bye open spaces?).

Hospital visits and doctor’s appointments. Patients will not be scheduled for visits the same as before, to avoid crowded waiting rooms. Extra safety measures and protection gear will become (or already are?) the norm.