As people get back to work, cities look for social-distancing solutions for the busy commute

“We could have thousands of people going back to private cars, because it’s a unique way to guarantee security,” said one city planner.
Image: Commuters stand in a coach during a test phase at the San Giovani underground metro station in Rome
Commuters stand in a subway car during a test phase at the San Giovani metro station in Rome on April 27.Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images

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By Luke Denne and Michele Novaga

As coronavirus lockdowns ease and people around the world begin to escape from their homes, a new challenge emerges. How do you socially distance on the commute?

Stay two meters (6.5ft) apart on a bus in Berlin? Or on the subway in Seoul? Likely to be challenging.

While many may choose to continue working from home, others will face no choice but to travel to work.

And with transit systems in major cities notoriously overcrowded, a nervous public may look for alternatives in which social distancing can be maintained.

People ride the Staten Island Ferry, which commutes between Staten Island and Manhattan on Monday in New York City.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

As a result, cities across the world are trying to find solutions that ensure that workers can travel to their jobs without jeopardizing their health or, indeed, that of the community.

While that could include creating more space for cyclists, electric bikes and electric scooters, or staggering working days to reduce the numbers traveling at rush hour, many people could be tempted by the private confines of their cars.

Figures following the recent lifting of lockdowns in China suggest that people are now using their vehicles more. Statistics from the country’s transportation department show that 4.5 percent more vehicles were on highways between April 4-6 than the same time last year.

But with cities across the world registering some of the cleanest air in recent memory, experts worry that a rush back to cars could undo progress in fighting traffic and smog.

Commuters deserting public transport in favor of their cars could cause a “nightmare, in terms of congestion, in terms of pollution,” said Stefano Boeri, an architect and urban planner from Milan.

“We could have thousands of people who will be going back to private cars, because it’s a unique way to guarantee security,” he said.

So cities around the world are looking for alternatives. Milan — Italy’s financial hub — has announced a strategy to tackle what deputy mayor Marco Granelli called the issue of “mobility in the age of the coronavirus.”

Commuters wearing protective face masks make their way along a suburban train platform as they arrive at at the Gare du Nord RER station in Paris France, on Wednesday.Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters

Part of the approach focuses on urging businesses to stagger their work days to avoid “super-crowded subways and buses,” which will have to run at less than a third of their capacity to maintain social distancing. In addition, the city is constructing 22 miles (35 kilometers) of protected bike lanes, to be ready as early as May and June.

Similarly, the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris and its suburbs, has announced a 300 million euro ($325 million) project to fast-track the planned construction of 650 km (400 miles) of cycle routes that follow the city’s main regional commuter lines.

“This investment, anticipated in the perspective of deconfinement” is designed “to make the bicycle a means of mass transport in Île-de-France,” a spokesperson said.

Major U.S. cities could also bolster the use of bicycle commuting, according to Columbia University’s Purnima Kapur — until recently the executive director of the New York City Department of City Planning. New York has suffered the worst outbreak in the United States, with more than 18,000 deaths according to NBC News’ tally.

“The move towards bikes was already very much in play in New York,” Kapur said, “I think it will probably accelerate.”

Indeed, New York’s Citi Bike share program reported a spike in usage in early March, as concerns about the virus grew, and the city’s transportation department registered a 50 percent increase in the number of cyclists crossing the East River bridges into Manhattan, compared to the same period last year.

This week, the city announced plans to create 40 miles of “open streets” in the next month to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists to socially distance. Mayor Bill De Blasio said there is now an “opportunity to do more with bike lanes.”

Similarly, riding levels on a popular trail in Philadelphia have soared by 471 percent year on year, a local cycling advocacy group said, resulting in the city closing a four-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to motor vehicles and making it available to cyclists.

But cycling is less viable for those with longer commutes. “You cannot think of someone coming from the Bronx into Manhattan on a bike,” Kapur said, “it just doesn’t work.”

Cities will need to find solutions that work for everyone or, Kapur fears, face a return to congestion and pollution.

“I think we really have to avoid going back to getting more cars on the street to compensate for whatever the shortcomings of mass transit are,” she said. “So whether it’s bikes, electric bikes, electric scooters, there are going to be a number of strategies” to look at, she said.

Kapur believes we are likely to see a “pretty significant change” to how our cities look post-lockdown, but admits she doesn’t “think anyone has a clear sense of how this is going to work.”

“Cities are going to look to each other and learn,” she said.

While a big shift to working from home — and avoiding the commute altogether — could be one approach, Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities, a U.K.-based think tank, believes it will be temporary.

“The value of face-to-face interaction is just so good,” he said, and as such “I think you will see the movement of people going back to the office.”

While he believes a shift to cycling can provide a “marginal” solution for some, he feels the real long-term changes to cities could follow the realization by residents of “how bad the quality of the air actually is” once the cars return.

A man stands on a red spot, reading "Stand here," aimed at maintaining distance between commuters in an underground metro line in Milan, on Thursday.Miguel Medina / AFP - Getty Images

“That will build a consensus around the fact that we need to do something and will give politicians cover to then be able to put more stringent measures in,” he said.

Kapur suggested that city-dwellers could be pushed into action when they see the short-term environmental benefits of the lockdowns disappearing.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go back to polluted cities and not being able to breathe,” she said. Mayors and city planners could find they now have the political will to push through progressive changes that would have seemed too radical a few months ago, she said.

We must seize the opportunity to “accelerate public policies on mobility that are already ongoing,” Boeri said.

“I hope that the awareness of how a city could be more liveable without this concentration of private cars and congestion will help us get there,” he said.

Dawn Liu and Nancy Ing contributed.