June 2020

Reimagining our roads. How COVID-19 has changed the face of mobility planning

It is hard to imagine that only a few months ago, politicians, local officials and planners were talking about the need to think long term about achieving sustainable and meaningful shifts in transport modal shift. Many in the transport planning world didn’t believe there was the public appetite for more rapid change.

COVID-19 has undeniably changed everything. From the outset, the impact of the pandemic was always going to be far reaching but having managed to navigate life through the past couple of months we are now starting to see a totally new paradigm emerging from the outbreak.

There was a drastic reduction in traffic immediately following the lockdowns in March this year and many countries took the opportunity to reallocate roadspace. Milan has responded with 35km of streets repurposed to accommodate a variety of sustainable modes. In Paris, the Mayor has announced that all streets will be cycle-friendly by 2024, including the city’s bridges. In Bristol, there is also change afoot with a rapidly growing public realm improvement programme and active travel helping to reimagine the city’s streets.

COVID-19 hasn’t yet led to a total redistribution of space on our roads but has led to a more fundamental rethink about the future purpose of our town and city centres.

Vectos is currently involved in the MORE project (part of  the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020).

Working with our external partners, the project is developing solutions to enable city authorities to make the best use of available road space. Vectos is coordinating city pilots in London, Budapest, Constanta, Lisbon and Malmo. This involves creating new street designs – through an innovative co-creation process with stakeholders and community groups – to improve performance along key corridors in the cities.

MORE explores the use of dynamic lanes, which can be repurposed at different times of the day, such as parking bays transformed into loading bays or even extending pedestrian space to meet demand. Testing will include the use of intelligent LED lights on the road surface and changeable digital signage. For obvious reasons, such approaches into flexible infrastructure have suddenly become more important than ever as we move towards designing more resilient and responsive streets.

To navigate the challenges around how places can and should evolve, our transport planners and microsimulation experts have been utilising traffic models to help guide local authorities across the country.

For example, working closely with Warwickshire County Council (WCC), we are exploring an array of localised interventions across a number of County towns. Our approach makes best use of the county’s existing microsimulation models and the advantages this offers in allowing us to simplify modelling assumptions and easily capture the responses to proposed changes. It also quantifies the predicted effect to provide stakeholders with comfort that the proposals have been fully considered and any concerns addressed. Working with WCC and Sustrans we have provided evidence through modelling to support pedestrianisation of the Parade, a key route through Leamington town centre, a change which has received widespread support and may now become permanent.

Much has changed in the past several months. We are beginning to see the beginning of a new renaissance period where a significant shift in mindsets towards people focussed streets is emerging. Across the world communities are channelling their efforts to create a better functioning ecosystem with the right infrastructure in place. The dominance of vehicular traffic in our towns and cities may still be felt but there is no doubt that there has been a powerful shift in perspectives. Whilst in its formative stages, we are beginning to see an irrevocable shift in the way we travel around and more positively, real and sustainable change in the way we live our lives.