We still desperately need a “new normal” for our streets, but we also have to prepare ourselves for a long period during which our cities insist it’s a luxury we can’t afford.
We still desperately need a “new normal” for our streets, but we also have to prepare ourselves for a long period during which our cities insist it’s a luxury we can’t afford. (Photo: Coen Van Den Broek/Unsplash)

Could the Pandemic Kill Car Culture?

Locked-down cities have opened streets to cyclists and pedestrians. But what happens when the traffic comes back?

We still desperately need a “new normal” for our streets, but we also have to prepare ourselves for a long period during which our cities insist it’s a luxury we can’t afford.

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There’s a famous cartoon that’s been making its way around advocacy circles for awhile now. It’s a typical city streetscape, only the street itself has been replaced by a bottomless canyon. Meanwhile, inches away, pedestrians cling to narrow sidewalks and traverse the chasm via treacherous gangplanks (crosswalks). It immediately drives home the modern-day state of affairs in cities across America and around the world: drivers own the streets, forcing everyone else into the margins. Should you place a foot in the wrong place and briefly stray from your meager spatial allotment, the price you pay is death.  

Many of us don’t see just how much space we’ve given over to drivers for the simple reason that it’s been this way for as long as most of us have been alive. But now that motor vehicle traffic has temporarily slowed to a trickle due to the pandemic, it’s become obvious—and doubly so since, on top of everything else, everybody who’s not in a car is supposed to stay six feet away from one another. Thanks to those narrowed sidewalks (New York City shaved them down in the early 20th century to make way for auto traffic), if you’re trying to adhere to the guidelines by steering clear of passersby then you’ve got no other choice but to walk in the street. Sure, pedestrians spilling into the street is nothing new in New York City, but when there are barely any cars, we’re able to see how absurdly car-centric our cities are. 

Given this, cities have begun to recognize the need to close certain streets to traffic—or, more accurately, open certain streets to people. In Italy, the city of Milan announced a plan to “fend off a resurgence in car use” by expanding cycling and walking space. In Germany, Berlin moved quickly to install pop-up bike lanes. Here in the United States, in Oakland, California, mayor Libby Schaaf set aside over 70 miles of streets “so that bicyclists and pedestrians can spread out and take in fresh air safely,” she told the San Jose Mercury News. And in New York City, after some initial resistance, last week mayor Bill de Blasio finally announced that the city will open up to 100 miles of streets to alleviate crowding in parks.

While there have been some complaints about the program in Oakland (some residents said they received no notice and simply woke up to barricades and “not a thru street” signs, and certain closures have caused conflicts at intersections), the city says the reaction to it has been “largely positive” and is soliciting community feedback on closing additional routes to car traffic. And while New York City’s own program has only just begun to take shape, all you have to do is stick your head out the window on a sunny day to see lots and lots of people taking advantage of the reduction in traffic to ride bikes for both transport and pleasure—a phenomenon that’s also happening all over the country, everywhere from Massachusetts to Mississippi. For advocates who have long been trying to sell city dwellers on the advantages of car-free (or at least car-lite) streets, they’ve finally gotten their showcase.

But what happens when everything opens up again? Will the individuals and families who have been riding continue to do so? Will they join advocates in demanding that cities rebalance their streets so that they can feel safe and comfortable to walk and ride with their children? Or will the bicycle simply fade away, a dalliance that was specific to a certain time and place but no longer relevant, like a high school boyfriend or the bong you used to own in college?

Alas, there’s reason to believe the latter scenario may be more likely. In fact, it’s entirely possible car use will come back at us with shocking speed and intensity—like a boomerang, or the waistband on a brand-new pair of underpants, or a speeding car. Traffic is back in China, and Wuhan is seeing a car-buying boom. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)—the largest public transportation agency in the United States—has seen ridership decline by over 90 percent, and could soon find itself on the verge of collapse. And as the shutdown decimates the economy, de Blasio has proposed cutting millions of dollars that were designated street redesign and bike lane programs. Meanwhile, all over the United States, government officials and the media are insisting that going forward we should expect a “new normal” in which we rethink everything from to retail to handshakes. This could include closing streets to traffic in order to accommodate restaurant diners, as is happening in Tampa. Or, it could involve an increased focus on “drive-in” business models, as Cuomo suggested in a recent press conference. (It’s important to remember how deeply entrenched car culture is in America, and that al fresco dining doesn’t necessarily portend a fundamental shift in the way people choose to travel.)

Of course, plenty of predictions and assumptions concerning the coronavirus have proven incorrect. Not every scientist agrees we need to overhaul our society, and once all this is over the new normal could turn out be… well, like the old normal. Regardless, between the lingering fear, the economic devastation, and the consequent disinvestments in transit and bike lanes, at least in the short term it’s equally likely that even people who would prefer not to will contemplate shifting to cars for day-to-day transportation. (Historically low gas prices and tempting incentives from automakers will only sweeten the deal.) This in turn will make bicycling for transportation a less attractive proposition for the people who weren’t already doing it pre-pandemic, as at least half the people in America who wish they could commute by bike don’t because they’re afraid of getting hit by a car. As for those open streets victories in Oakland and New York, they were predicated on the idea of facilitating social distancing, a concept that will one day go the way of those Cold War-era “Fallout Shelter” signs you still see on old apartment buildings. 

This will be a challenging time for bicycle advocacy for all of the reasons above, and it will only be compounded by the fact that advocacy organizations will be seeking funding and donations in a ravaged economy. While people will no doubt savor the open streets in New York City and elsewhere, what they crave most at this moment is normalcy. Instead of shaming the transit rider purchasing a car out of necessity, those who wish to reclaim streets from cars will have to exercise compassion and understanding. As of this week, 30 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits. New York’s bike share program may be extending memberships to critical workers, but its parent company has also just laid off 17 percent of its workforce.

We still desperately need a “new normal” for our streets, but we also have to prepare ourselves for a long period during which our cities insist it’s a luxury we can’t afford.