What a few weeks of dramatic change for all of us, our normal way of life of commuting, face to face meeting, drinking in a pub after work or even the basic manner of shaking hands have been replaced by video-conferencing, tracking down online delivery slots from supermarkets, queuing outside shops with clear marking on social distancing and looking up recipes on how to make a sourdough starter on YouTube.
We are only at the beginning of the ‘new normal’ as the world battling away with Coronavirus, while we thank our medical and key workers to keep the country running, towns and cities across the globe have gone through unprecedented change. As our economy has been put on hold with everyone mostly staying indoor to exercise social distancing, our roads are empty, traffic has been substantially reduced, air quality has seen a substantial improvement.
Countries are currently in various level of lockdown, while Italy and Spain have restricted movement, there is a substantial increase in cycling and walking in the UK and US, especially in big cities such as London and New York. Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City, has announced the city aims to open over 100 miles (160km) of streets to pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic to ease social distancing among its people who venture out for their exercise. Other cities such as Brussel, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Lithuania and Auckland have all adopted a certain tactical urbanism strategy to reclaim the street for pedestrians. It seems, at this moment in time of the crisis, there is a paradigm shift towards the promotion of walking and cycling.
Never waste a good crisis – Winston Churchill
It should be acknowledged that this level of enthusiasm could only be temporary, once the lockdown begins to ease, the general public will be eager to venture out again to continue their daily lives. The threat is a substantial increase in the use of the private vehicle as people are suspicious of public transport such as the buses or the underground. This will be a wasted opportunity considering most people have enjoyed the increase in air quality during this period.
The challenge ahead in the next few weeks will be which strategy cities should adopt before the ease of the lockdown. Should the strategy be bold and push for a revolutionary approach with closing substantial road network and promote cycling, walking or should we only push for small incremental change and hope we will get there one day?
History taught us that rapid revolutionary change rarely happens as it takes time for the population to adopt these new ideas. However, I suspect the reality is if we start with the bold solutions, where we encourage the nation to adopt greener transport such as cycling, as daily life begins to get back to normal in the coming months, we could end up with a nation who is more accustom to these kinds of “new normal”. To give you an idea, I never imagine I will be able to cycle from the end of the Northern Line in NW London to the West End due to the amount of traffic I encountered previously. Yet I have had a pleasant and surprisingly easy ride at the weekend to experience a deserted Covent Garden and Regent Street. The moral of the story? We need to create conditions to encourage people to take these bold steps and embrace the potentials of this new world.