Pandemics – as the historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed – carry the characteristic of pressing the fast-forward button in history. Suddenly, changes that would generate years of debate, dissent, hesitation, opposition and delay turn out to be possible overnight.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, we are observing a transformation in several segments to adapt to the necessary isolation and despite all the negative impacts of the crisis on health and the economy, some positive consequences can already be seen, such as, for example, the looming years of digital transformation in companies.
Such positive changes can also be seen in relation to the environment, with no cars on the street, we see the air pollution levels dropping dramatically in major cities worldwide. Some few examples bellow:
- 30% of drops in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions in China according to NASA.
- In New York, Scientists from Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute have been monitoring Manhattan air, and found 10% drops in carbon dioxide and methane, and an “astounding” 50% less carbon monoxide, due largely to less exhaust fumes.
- In London, we see 60% less of NO2 levels compared with the same time last year.
Jenny Bates, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says the drop in air pollution shows just how quickly less traffic can lead to cleaner air. We can say that the planet was finally able to take a breath.
But now, how do we ensure the benefits for the environmental crisis go beyond the global health one? Why should it be just pie in the sky to want the slumps in air pollution to extend beyond COVID-19?
World leaders now have a chance to plot a different destiny, and cities are now on the edge to go towards a more environment friendly world.
The New Normal
There is no going back to normality post COVID. First, we were forced to leave our comfort zone in several of our habits and we found out that it is completely possible - and much more convenient - to do things that we were used to in another way. Companies realized that their corporate employees can easily work remotely without losing efficiency, we can take 100% digital courses and classes and buying online can be much more easy and convenient.
As already said by Albert Einstein: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size”
Secondly, coronavirus will not suddenly disappear when we get out of isolation - we will still have to be careful, maintain social distance and act with precautions so that a new wave of contamination does not come.
With the end of the isolation and people back on the streets, there is a risk of a new period of high contagion. As a new flareup of COVID-19 cases could shutter offices, stores, restaurants and manufacturing plants once again, further choking off the flow of goods and services and threatening more jobs, the governments must provide rigorous oversight of the process and the population must be aware of the importance of the social distance. We definitely need to open the cities and economy again, but it's really important to do it carefully and keep to avoid a new lockdown.
Cities infrastructure as part of this revolution
When it comes to the big cities infrastructure, contextualizing the “new normal” life model and in line with the "depollution" process that we are observing in large urban centers, everything can mean a great opportunity to definitely implement the micromobility alternatives as a habit on people's life.
To guarantee the recommended social distance to avoid contagion, we will probably see rules implemented in the public transport of fewer people by wagons or vehicles. As such, individual and outdoor transportation alternatives will be excellent for meeting demand and keep people safe. And it seems that large urban centers are already preparing for this:
- Bogotá, Colombia: Has added 117 kilometers of cycle lanes practically overnight to accommodate more riders and social distancing and to reduce the risk of contagion in public transport
- Milan, Italy: The city has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, said: “We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops. Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before.”
- Miraflores, Peru: The Municipality of Miraflores will shortly initiate a Pilot Plan for the implementation of temporary Micro-mobility Routes (VMV), to promote the use of bicycles and personal mobility vehicles during the state of sanitary emergency.
- Berlin, German: Berlin gave the green light to a scheme that had temporarily widened two bike lanes as part of efforts to improve cycling safety without hindering traffic flow.
- New Zealand: The Prime Minister has announced an emergency fund to be used by cities that want to implement temporary cycle paths.
- Cities such as Mexico City and London are seeing the benefits of many years spent growing their cycling networks, and are moving to make temporary cycling measures permanent.
In this doc provided by NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials from North America), it's possible to find the improvements related above and more examples that are being made worldwide to improve cities infrastructure
Now is time for cities to respond by building infrastructure and making space on our streets to accommodate micromobility modes. This must happen in conjunction with enacting policies that keeps its many users safe, and encourages more people to switch modes.
Investing in infrastructure to support micromobility — from protected lanes, to mass parking facilities to bikeshare and e-sccoter programs — is exactly the type of win-win investment that will help economies recover while curbing climate change, reducing air pollution and protecting human health.
So, how is Brazil?
Although great efforts are being made in the world regarding this, we still can't see any of them being done in Brazil.
While we have one of the biggest transit congestion worldwide in our major cities and we also contribute a lot for the NO2 emissions on the planet, I question: Are we going to live the “new normal” way of life keeping the old infrastructure and habits in our cities?
I see a great opportunity for Brazilian governments, taking the countries mentioned as an example, to work strategically to include mobility options in the re-open cities plan.
Turning leisure lanes into permanent lanes, expanding the bicycle infrastructure with new bike lanes, offer public bikes and scooters on a large scale for the population and also integrate transport modes with technology. Drastically reduce parking spaces for cars and blue zones replacing wider sidewalks or bike lanes and "parklets", subsidize the purchase of bikes and scooters from those who sell vehicles are some of the options.
In the end, it's very important to realize that in every situation, and even in the most difficult one, it is always worth stepping back and analyzing side phenomena that could lead to innovative and transformational solutions that could definitely drive us to a better future.
If not now, when?