Opening up streets during a pandemic

Temporary bike lane in Bogota (Photo by IDRD)

If anyone had told me that ‘open streets’ (temporary car-free streets) would be part of the discussion in how to tackle a global pandemic, I would have not believed it 6 months ago but a look at social media or transport and urban related articles show that the concept has taken hold, and it might be here to stay.

This moment, perhaps as all crises do, has pushed many of us involved in the movement to look at ourselves in the mirror and raise difficult questions about the concept as a whole. How does it respond to needs on the ground? How does it adapt to the different contexts in different cities around the world? How does it shape going forward?

In many Latin American cities, for instance, where the programme was consolidated as a weekly urban feature decades ago and attracts thousands of people every Sunday, all “ciclovias” have been suspended. Instead, weekday temporary bicycle lanes which partly follow the routes of the Sunday programmes have been installed as an way to enable mobility while promoting physical distancing.

In North America, the concept has also been embraced by many cities, though in light of the racialised police brutality on the streets across the country, it is also highly scrutinised by urban planners, activists and community leaders who are poignantly asking “who” are streets opening up for?

Meanwhile, European cities with a pre-existing agenda to free up streets from cars and to promote active mobility have used the limelight of the moment and jumped on the opportunity to make some changes permanent.

Streets as an essential service

For the past 3 months, I have co-hosted discussions with the network of Ciclovias (open streets) in Latin America and it has been fascinating to see how transport has taken centre stage even though most of the programmes are centred around recreation and physical activity.

For decades, Ciclovias have mostly been managed by city sports departments, and transport benefits are rarely the focus of measurement or promotion. Indeed, one of the challenges, when looking at the Latin American model to replicate in other places, is the lack of hard evidence on transport modal shift as a result of weekly car-free streets. Yet, we know people learn to cycle, travel on bicycle on those days and most likely are influenced in how they think about and experience mobility.

The temporary bicycle lanes in Latin America have been possible largely because of an existing human and physical infrastructure –normally only deployed on Sundays. Yet, closing down streets for 5 hours on a weekly basis is a different ball game to closing them down for 12 hours from Monday through Friday. In Medellin, for instance, local government has had to keep the route much shorter than on Sundays and leaving cones on the street overnight to keep up with the pace and the demand.

Last Sunday, we engaged in an interesting conversation with the officials rolling out this programme in the Colombian city. In addition to the large logistical undertaking, a key challenge has been that the temporary lanes fail to reach neighbourhoods in greatest need. When queried what their plans were to create a model that was more inclusive, the response was that Medellin’s Sunday Ciclovia was built on the concept of social inclusion by connecting poor and rich neighbourhoods. Yet, there was no reflection on how that played out on the temporary installation.

Streets as platforms for change

Covid presents a poignant opportunity to think about open streets as a practice and to get our priorities straight. In that vein, we can start by recognising that essential workers face the highest risk and already hold the most precarious positions in society and so any intervention, temporary and certainly those with a longer-term horizon must be curated with them in mind. As it has been evident in Cape Town and beyond, Covid does not only need a medical response but a social response and part of how we make people’s daily life, which includes mobility, is paramount in ensuring we are prioritising the need of those who are most vulnerable.

In Europe temporary measures around mobility have had to a large-extent, great success. Milan, Paris and Berlin, just to name a few, are lauded as shiny examples of what is possible with political will and with the right disposition to respond to the crisis. What might get missed in that story is that all those cities had pre-existing plans to roll out the infrastructure that was simply accelerated during this period. I found it particularly interesting to learn that in Milan, in fact, many more kilometres had been promised for years but the implementation of the programme was of course just at the right time to receive international praise.

Be that as it may, the bottom line is that in places where pre-existing efforts and a culture of ‘streets for all’ the required changes to create car-free streets has been a natural, though not necessarily easy, transition.

Streets as a mirror of our reality

The context in Cape Town and to some extend in other African cities, as discussed with colleagues from Addis and Nairobi, sheds light on what we already know, that most of people rely on public and active mobility, no the private vehicle. The plans exist the expertise too and the economic downturn might just highlight that the bicycle, for instance, brings many benefits. From serving as a tool to deliver food and medicine, they are certainly also a more affordable way to move around.

Regardless of how this unfolds, a big personal lesson is that “open streets” is a philosophy that must adapt to different realities. It certainly goes beyond any organisation, as they have life cycles (as a friend reminded me recently). A philosophy, in contrast does not. A way of thinking about our environment is something that permeates our day-to-day experience and in times of crisis as the one we are undergoing, can help us imagine a different future.

In Cape Town, I have been heartened to see that conversations to build on the work many of us put into an idea which eventually became an organisation but which future is, as it is for many other organisations, uncertain. I left Open Streets Cape Town 17 months ago but I have stayed connected to some of my former colleagues who, through the work, became friends. During this crisis, I have been inspired to see how some of them are spreading the dream in their own communities. The best example is Mzikhona Mgedle who has kick-started a Bicycle Centre in Langa for people to be able to fix their bikes an in his words “to build a home for all cycling needs to improve mobility.”

The process is not simple and if there is anything I learnt in the early days of dreaming Open Streets is that the most important thing is to keep the dream alive. Setting up an enterprise in times of crisis is no joke and Mzi with his colleagues, some from the Open Streets family have a lot to figure out as the hurdles are many. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm is contagious and it seems that as Covid infections rise, so does his energy and commitment to as he likes to say to “build back better.”

In that process of re-building, I believe Open Streets as a movement and a practice can certainly help us think differently about the future of our city. Creating streets for all in Cape Town will not work by copying and pasting or just trying to go back to what we used to do. In fact, it might be that an Open Streets Day is not possible in the near future at all because of all the expenses and also because of the risk of bringing people together, not to mention the regulatory implications of “an event” simply not being possible. Nonetheless, there are many ways in which streets can and are being reimagined. The Langa Bicycle Centre is one example and I am hopeful that many more will emerge opening up not just streets but as it was aptly captured in this old poster, many hearts.

I am passionate about cities, public space & mobility. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Currently, Cape Town is home.

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