Thursday, April 22

Pandemic Lockdowns Lead to Less Traffic and Better Air

As we now know, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown has been a silver lining for another global crisis: climate change. Sharp decreases in traffic and better air quality have been reported around the world, and hundreds of jurisdictions from Berlin to Bogotá are reallocating space to make it easier for walkers and cyclists with permanent and emergency solutions, like “pop-up” bike routes.

“We are at a moment of change that we have not seen since World War II when cities needed to reinvent themselves,” said Claudia Adriazola-Steil, global director for the health and road safety program at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “The longtime goals of reducing the number of cars on the roads and unacceptable levels of air pollution was achieved in a few weeks. You can see the Himalayan blue skies for the first time in 25 years.”

But speed is a serious “invisible threat, a hidden enabler” undermining those efforts, Ms. Adriazola-Steil said. “If you have more people able to walk and bike, it will be a huge gain in terms of climate change, but if we want cities to be more sustainable, you have to reduce the speed of cars.”

Driving at lower speed means less fuel use, which lowers carbon emissions. It also means less crash risk. Global efforts, from lowering speed and regulating the export of “dirty” and unsafe cars to adopting smart street design, aim to reduce death on the world’s roads and improve the environment.

“Humans have a developed sense of altitude, but not speed,” Ms. Adriazola-Steil said. “It’s a perception that’s difficult to change.” For example, most people fear jumping out a second-floor window, but the injury risk is about the same as getting hit by a car at 25 m.p.h.

Globally, speed is one of the biggest causes of traffic crash deaths and serious injury, contributing to about one third of fatalities in high-income countries and up to one half in low- and middle-income countries. In the United States, speed limits have been rising since the mid-1990s.

“Transportation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world and is the fastest-growing,” Ms. Duncan said. “By redesigning streets, cities can quickly tackle the urgent crises of climate change and road safety at the same time. The best global solutions have immediate local impacts.”

Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and now transportation principal at Bloomberg Associates, which advises mayors around the world, noted that cities were undergoing “a street design” revolution. “There is a straight line between what happens on city roads and global climate change.”

“There are 1.3 million traffic deaths annually and another 4.2 million deaths attributed to pollution,” said Ms. Sadik-Khan, who is also chair of the Global Designing Cities Initiative. “Streets that are safe for people also support the health of the planet.”

“If your goal is to save the planet, you can start by building a bike lane,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said.

Bloomberg Associates and the Global Designing Cities Initiative work, separately and in collaboration, with cities to encourage smart street design using a mix of strategies: reducing speed limits, increasing traffic enforcement and education, constructing pedestrian plazas and traffic calming measures, investing in infrastructure and public transit (including cleaner public transit vehicles), and building and expanding protected bike lanes and bike share programs.

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