Urban Future

Street Smarts: Designers restrict cars to make space on city roads for pedestrians, cyclists, and varied uses in post-pandemic life
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Architectural Record
By Katharine Logan

Learning Objectives:

  1. Explain how Covid-19 is prompting cities to consider the reconfiguration of street space as a means to accomplish civic goals.
  2. Describe how urban streets can be revamped to advance goals for equity, mobility, and climate.
  3. Discuss street adaptations that could help cities improve green-space access.
  4. Describe emerging digital technologies that could help cities better manage their streets and promote a diversity of uses.


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Do you think you have the answer to why the chicken crossed the road? As city dwellers worldwide will now tell you, it wasn’t simply to get to the other side. No—that chicken crossed the road because the sidewalk wasn’t wide enough for social distancing in a pandemic. Geographer Daniel Rotsztain demonstrated that last spring in his viral video of collaborator Bobby Gadda trying to navigate in their home city with a 6-foot-radius hoop slung over his shoulders.


Isolated green spaces in Toronto, such as the one in front of the law courts (bottom), would be reimagined (top) under a plan by PUBLIC WORK for University Avenue.

The current crisis has highlighted long-standing issues around the livability, safety, equity, and sustainability of streets, while placing new demands on residents, workers, and businesses as they tried to adapt to the spatial implications of the contagion. Cities around the globe responded with a speed unprecedented in peacetime, rolling out a range of adaptive measures. These include reallocating road lanes to extend the width of sidewalks and to provide bike and public-transit routes; improving the safety of crossings by using vertical elements and surface markings (as emptier streets have led to higher speeds, driving up pedestrian fatality rates); and increasing connectivity and mobility options with slow or shared street programs (where vehicle access is limited to local traffic at reduced speeds, and priority given to pedestrians and cyclists). Streets have been opened as space for physical activity, play, and distanced socializing; as outdoor classrooms, health-check zones, and drop-off areas for schools; and as expanded gathering space for cultural, religious, and civic institutions. Businesses have been permitted to use street space for outdoor dining, pickup and delivery, and markets. And special-event provisions have supported the exercise of fundamental civil rights, such as voting and protest.

Underlying these changes is a growing recognition that the street is not just a way of moving traffic around: it is the most significant publicly owned land asset that municipalities have for achieving civic goals. “We need to rethink for what and for whom our streets are put in service,” says Gia Biagi, transportation commissioner for the City of Chicago. “This pandemic has made it possible for Chicagoans to see that more clearly.”

Based on public outreach to better understand neighborhood needs, Chicago has implemented 125 blocks of shared streets and an outdoor dining program in which about 500 establishments are participating at 250 locations across the city. A focus on mobility justice has resulted in pop-up bus-only lanes, which have doubled transit service for some 20,000 essential workers, while also reducing fares. It has brought wider service on what is now the most geographically expansive bike-share program in the country, with the addition of e-bikes for longer distances, and an e-scooter pilot program in priority areas, based on equity, where high numbers of essential workers have faced mobility and connectivity challenges. “It’s a practice­oriented way of working that Covid has enabled, an open-mindedness to testing things,” says Biagi. “It’s local knowledge and local know-how that makes projects work and makes them stick.”

Urbanists see the coronavirus emergency as an extraordinary opportunity for the long-term transformation of streets in cities around the world. Examples from Toronto, New York, and Chicago address key themes that the pandemic has highlighted—including quality of life, mobility justice, and equity of access to public space. They demonstrate solutions that respond to local specifics, and illustrate changes that many city dwellers hope will be made permanent.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in March 2021