November 23, 2020

Our transportation networks are the lifeblood of our cities. With each pulse, they exist to support the safe and efficient movement of people and goods from one place to another, connecting us to the ones we love and places we want to go, and keeping our local businesses moving. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all seen how quickly our needs and patterns can change too. We’re all still feeling the impact of more time at home and less time spent at events or dining out. Empty shelves at bike stores across the county show that many of us are also looking for new opportunities to get out and explore the cities and towns we call home. While no one knows how much longer we’ll be in this environment, it’s important to keep in mind that the pandemic is only accelerating some longer term trends in transportation preferences. For the more car-dependent city, how do you respond? Is your transportation network nimble and resilient enough to safely and efficiently support a temporary—and possibly more permanent—shift?

Focus on Equity and Connectivity

As mayors and other city leaders think about what’s next, it’s important to frame your thinking through two important lenses: equity and connectivity.

Car-dependent cities already present challenges for transit users and bike riders. Lower-income populations, particularly those who do not own a reliable vehicle, are inequitably impacted when transit systems are threatened. Many of these people are essential workers keeping our food and delivery systems and our critical infrastructure afloat during a crisis. When limited transit routes are reduced even further (or closed altogether) and when personal protective equipment is unavailable, lower-income populations are disproportionately at risk when seeking alternative modes of transportation. A resilient transportation network that can comfortably, safely and intuitively support a temporary mode shift to biking helps all people (regardless of socioeconomic status) get where they need to go.

A snapshot of Town Branch Commons, a multimodal trail, greenway and park system that links the urban core of Lexington, Kentucky, with the bluegrass countryside that will give the city’s residents comfortable, safe and resilient multimodal mobility choices.

How to Shift to a Multimodal Network

Whether in response to a temporary transportation disrupter or in permanent installation to enhance a road network for the long-term, there are three tenets of safety to promote in multimodal planning and design: separation, speed and intuitiveness. People by nature choose how to get around based on how comfortable the route is, how direct it is to their destination and how safe they are along the way. By separating cars and people, by slowing the speed of traffic and by creating an intuitive network for all users, car-dependent cities can support the shift of people out of their cars and onto a bike or other means of transportation.

Separate different modes and make it comfortable. It does not have to take a lot to create temporary separation, just a little ingenuity and repurposing of resources on hand. Many cities are implementing slow streets programs, where select streets are closed to allow people to move freely move about their neighborhoods. Others are creating temporary installations to experiment. For example, Kansas City is offering neighborhood open streets permits, empowering its residents and allowing block-level closures on neighborhood streets (like for a block party). Temporary installations can also demonstrate where it is possible to create a permanent, comfortable multimodal network that connects the urban, suburban and rural areas of car-dependent cities.

Lower speed limits to make streets safer. Cities all over the world are temporarily lowering city speed limits, and some are even considering making these new speed limits permanent. Simply put, speed matters when it comes to safety for everyone, especially our vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians. Change can’t happen overnight, so start with the local roads. Take for example, the “20 Is Plenty” campaign in Boulder, Colorado. The city has created an initiative to lower the speed limits from 25 to 20 mph on many residential streets. Adjusting speeds on these local access roads can immediately create a safer environment for bicyclists and pedestrians without adversely impacting capacity and flow for distributing collectors and arterials.

Make it intuitive. The shortest path between any two points is a straight line, whether in a car, on a bus or on a bike, people seek to find the line that is the straightest when traveling. What makes a transportation network intuitive to use is when a network is complete and unbroken and when that network provides direct connections for where people want to go. What does an intuitive network look like? Take a look at Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery from the National Association of City Transportation Officials. This guide contains a compilation of emerging practices from around the world and implementation resources for municipalities installing the components and segments that make up temporary multimodal networks. Maintaining facilities that continue to function in an intuitive way across our networks help to ensure that users of our public spaces know what to expect, and it helps to lay the foundation for multimodal users and networks to thrive.

Right now, people are experiencing their neighborhoods outside of a car like never before, and there is a demand for multimodal facilities that provide safe means of transportation and activity within social distancing parameters. Cities are responding, and creative minds are forging new ideas daily out of the most compelling circumstance: necessity (the mother of invention).

Today’s pandemic is just one type of disrupter than can cause shifts in transportation mode, and the transportation networks of car-dependent cities are vulnerable. We can’t rely on just design guidelines anymore. Cities need planning and design professionals who understand the challenges that come with temporary multimodal shift, regardless of circumstance.

Car-dependent cities can support that shift by prioritizing the things people look for and need the most when using an alternative mode of transportation: a route that is comfortable, safe and direct. Car-dependent cities need to evaluate opportunities to separate cars, bikes and pedestrians. In this way, the public realm can equitably support the physical, emotional and social wellbeing for its communities in times of crisis and stress. It doesn’t have to be hard; it just takes a little genuine ingenuity.