Pandemics provide us with opportunities to reflect on our spatial management: good impacts, bad effects and ugly incidences. Although the general trend is that we are coerced into making short term changes; in many spheres, pandemics can serve as potential triggers for implementing long term improvement. The Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception.
Some key topics of discussion that have emerged include neo-liberal policies on health and education, health impacts of urban crowding versus density as well as the role of urban mobility
The pandemic has brought about a paradigm shift in how many cities manage their mobility. Cities are being forced to make interventions to meet the requirements of physical distancing and healthy living. In some places, this has been done through promotion of public space and non-motorized transit. Milan, Kampala, Tel Aviv, Toronto and Bogota have all made efforts to improve or expand walking and cycling facilities along their streets. Milan has even gone ahead to develop the Milan 2020 Open Streets Adaptation Strategy, a document proposing strategies and actions towards better walking, cycling and distancing measures.
Tel Aviv has pledged to convert 11 streets into pedestrian zones. These will remain closed to vehicles in the coming weeks with the aim of encouraging local trade, allowing more outdoor eateries and making the city more pedestrian friendly. New Zealand rolled out the #streetsforpeople pilot fund to quickly create safe, separated cycle and pedestrian footpaths as well as open streets for dining.Toronto has also set up a ‘Quiet Streets’ programme that will see closure of several streets and reduced vehicular usage to enable physical distancing for pedestrians but will also be open for cyclists. Nairobi and Kampala have not been left behind, the two East African cities are embarking on projects that involve constructing wider pedestrian ways and cycling lanes in their respective Central Business Districts.
Gil Penalosa, founder of 880 Cities, an organization that advocates for cities to have streets that are safe for both 8 and 80 year olds alike, states that the Corona Virus lockdown is ‘an opportunity of a lifetime’ for bike lanes. He views this as a ‘small window’ that city mayors have for the creation of physically separated cycling corridors. In his view, if not done now, we might have missed a lifetime opportunity.
Many may ask about the benefits of better walking and cycling infrastructure. These have been recognized for centuries. First and foremost are the health benefits; when citizens are more active they are less susceptible to lifestyle diseases, they enjoy better air quality due to lower vehicle emissions, reduced stress due to less time spent in vehicular traffic as well as increased social interaction.
In urban areas in the global south like Nairobi where a vast majority of the citizens walk to work (about 45%), good walking or cycling infrastructure helps create a safer environment. It is interesting to note that pedestrians comprise over 30% of the road fatalities in Nairobi . Although the person to car ratios are still low at less than 20% and way below the congestion ratio of 70%, such cities operate with manual traffic management systems which are prone to human error thus keeping drivers in traffic for hours.
Urban street design manuals can help improve traffic management. The Kenyan Governments is striving to come up with clear and consistent street design standards. They are doing this by developing an official urban street design manual. Good urban infrastructure should include well paved, shaded and separated pedestrian walkways. Continuous and safe cycling lanes and crossroads that are safe for children, the elderly and persons with disability are equally important.
The ugly side of the pandemic is viewed by statistics of the number of infected as well as the number of fatalities due either to the disease or suspected police brutality.
There is little focus on the pandemic’s bad effects like its impact on workers in the transport sector. Public transport vehicles within cities in the global south are required to reduce their capacities for purposes of social distancing. This, coupled with office closures encouraging people to work from home and the closure of schools, has resulted in a significant reduction in the demand for public transport. The majority of transport workers in these countries depend on daily wages and the ensuing loss of income has drastically impacted households. Income for some workers has fallen to 30% while others in the sector have found themselves jobless due to redundancy. Drivers are resorting to doubling as conductors in some vehicles to increase customer seating capacity.
A group particularly hard hit are women who work in the sector. A study by Flone Initiative in Nairobi revealed that female workers’ income reduced by almost 60%. Sexual exploitation, including requests for favors in exchange for some of the few jobs available have also been experienced. Women workers face the added responsibility of teaching at home, as the government requires home-schooling of children. Reports indicate that many low income earners have defaulted on rent. A large number are receiving support from humanitarian groups to meet basic needs. Nigerian and Ugandan public service vehicles face similar predicaments, or worse. Public service vehicles in Kampala faced a complete banned from operation.
The urban poor face increased fares which curtails the function of transport being an enabler for people to access opportunities. Taxi drivers have also faced similar problems with a greatly reduced market.
Some critical learning points from this pandemic are available.
Governments in the global south have tended to shy away from participation in the public transport sector. They can no longer afford to do so. The need to recognize public transport as an essential service is clear. Citizens require safe and reliable multi-modal transport services that can easily adapt to changing situations and emergencies. Transport workers also require job security as reliance on inconsistent income has negative impacts at household level. The pillars of socially just public transport and the ‘Avoid-Shift-Improve’ paradigm offer good starting points for this. Along with such initiatives, the installation and maintenance of sanitation and hygiene facilities within the transport ecosystem is key. Lighting and urban greenery are some of the other important features for healthier environments.
The gaps that humanitarian groups are filling demonstrate how much groundwork the transport sector must cover towards developing full resilience. As cities in the global south embark on mass transit projects, these challenges require viable solutions beyond brick and mortar. To keep cities moving, there is a need for a seamless range of mobility options. These include bus, metro, shared taxis, walking and growing micro mobility. These options should be a part of every city’s resilience strategy. Urban areas take different forms emerging out of both historic and existing urban policies. However, the obligation to encourage healthier living is crucial not only now but also in the future.