Opening up streets during a pandemic

Marcela Guerrero Casas
6 min readJun 24, 2020
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…

Marcela Guerrero Casas

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