When the email to shelter in place came in mid-March, my partner and I simply packed up our laptops, grabbed some extra stationery, replenished our online grocery orders and headed home early. As we self-isolate, our daily pattern of movement is now confined to a 500-metre radius that includes the local park, supermarket, greengrocer, pharmacy and my father’s apartment.
We are privileged to work from home, but many others are not so lucky. Our self-isolated lives have been supported by a steady stream of couriers who risk their health and well-being making sure our power cables, toilet paper and lunches appear at our door. As we rediscover the joys of isolated walks in our neighbourhoods, there are essential workers that continue to travel to and from pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals to support the rest of us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily patterns of movement and life in the city – a disruption that is felt unevenly. It has also underscored the critical role urban mobility plays in our daily lives and, at the same time, it has highlighted how the status quo could change to foster a more equitable system of mobility.
Cities are magnetic, and people will return, but how will we inhabit them?
First, we must resist the urge to apply pre-existing solutions to the current crisis. We must also avoid solutions shrink-wrapped for the current pandemic, assuming that the next global crisis will require the same epidemiological response. Instead, our design thinking will need to be grounded in societal values, clear data and research.
At Perkins and Will, we have started to consider a post-COVID-19 recovery in three stages: the immediate period of emergency response, followed by a period of physical distancing and testing, and, finally, a post-vaccine recovery. Each demands a unique response from the design profession.
Along with healthcare and other sectors, public transit has been significantly disrupted by this pandemic. Ridership has plummeted by 70 to 90 per cent in cities across the world. Transit operators have suffered fatalities at incredible rates – New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority alone has seen over 50 subway and bus operators succumb to the effects of COVID-19. In spite of this, busses continue the critical role of ferrying nurses to hospitals and packers to distribution centres across our cities.
After cutting back service across the board, Toronto’s TTC recently reinstated service on 15 routes. Not surprisingly, all routes corresponded to places where distribution warehouses, food processing plants, light industrial facilities, and industrial bakeries are concentrated, as well as the lower-income neighbourhoods of many of their employees. Systems around the world have also introduced rear-door boarding, empty cars, or even free fares in an effort to protect operators and promote physical distancing. Their operators quickly implemented increased cleaning regimens and plastic guards to limit the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, the frailty of the just-in-time supply chains that support our lifestyles have been made visible by shortages of milk and eggs at the local supermarket and online delivery platforms that offer time slots past midnight. Scooter and bike share companies Bird and Lime have pulled their fleets, while Uber continues to adjust its sick pay policies. The taxi industry has seen near complete shutdowns.
As vehicular traffic on our streets has dropped, cities as diverse as Berlin, Winnipeg and Auckland have responded by quickly re-allocating space to active modes of transportation – biking and walking – in an effort to promote physical distancing.
Together, these experiences highlight the vital importance of public transit and mobility services in the function of our cities, while shedding new light on the social inequities of urban transportation. As we embrace new behaviours and perspectives, now is the time to examine which ones will stay for the long-term.
As the emergency response winds down, we will likely enter an interim period where we try to balance continued physical distancing with a staged return to work – and possibly widely mandated COVID-19 testing by health authorities.
Service planners will look to reduce peak loading during “rush hour” by adjusting service and pricing systems to incentivize off-peak travel. Stations and stops will likely require crowd control measures that promote new space standards during queuing and travel, and spaces may need to be re-appropriated for testing programs mandated by public health authorities. Touch-less fare collection and validation could serve to eliminate physical touch points along the journey. Accessible hand-washing stations at key points may need to be accommodated, as well.
On our streets, the temporary reallocation of space may become a permanent solution. With an overall reduction in traffic, space could also be repurposed for essential deliveries and public hygiene facilities to support the well-being of delivery workers.
Transit-priority lanes, like those implemented on King Street in Toronto or 14th Street in New York, could be quick wins that deliver rapid transit quickly and introduce redundancy missing in heavy rail networks.
These efforts will need to be balanced against pressures to shift to single-occupant vehicles — as seen in Wuhan in the wake of the crisis. Similarly, Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs or High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that rely on carpooling will require new approaches and strategies.
If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, we’ll need to adjust our thinking to the long-term and how our systems will remain resilient in future global crises. The top six transit agencies in the U.S., for example, support over 35 per cent of U.S. GDP and act as critical links to jobs, education and opportunity. Rethinking urban mobility in a post-vaccine world will need to consider three key factors: resilience, equity and public health, and research.
Resilient Mobility Systems
The rapid shift to working from home has highlighted travel patterns singularly focused on moving large numbers of people to central office districts and employment nodes. Cities will need resilient mobility systems that are flexible and adaptable — systems that can support crosstown travel to a constellation of new employment hubs located in our residential neighbourhoods. Cities like Miami have already partnered with ride-sharing companies to support low ridership areas while covering its more populated lines.
Station buildings will also need to support flexibility and introduce greater redundancy. Their designs can no longer be shrink-wrapped around tight standards for escalator runoffs or turnstile approaches – they must instead allow space for unforeseen shifts in function. Local stations might also be well-equipped to act as community resilience hubs where members of the public can access information and free Wi-Fi, and where broader organizational responses – from muster points and emergency charging stations to distribution nodes for PPE supplies, emergency water/food, and even mobile medical testing – can take place.
Moreover, as working from home becomes more routine, people will look for community and amenity spaces close to where they live. Stations (and surrounding commuter parking lots) offer easy opportunities to implement small-scale retail pop-ups, touch-less grocery ordering and pick-up, farmers markets and online package distribution. There are also longer-term opportunities to repurpose land surrounding stations, which can diversify the revenue streams of transit operators and add to their operational resilience.
Fostering Social Equity and Public Health
While many of us have questioned if we’ll ever need to commute again, others have not been afforded that privilege. Essential workers continue to rely on public transit. Deliveries have only increased. The intersection of low-wage employment, chronic health conditions, and the continued need to travel during the pandemic has exposed equity-seeking groups to elevated levels of risk. Safe, convenient and gracious urban mobility networks are essential for our collective well-being.
At stations and stops, designers will need to reconsider shelter designs to provide for adequate distancing while improving comfort, lighting and safety. Transit operators will need to introduce vehicles — like Bombardier’s Flexity Outlook — that feature an enclosed cab that provides protection while retrofitting older vehicles; they could also bolster transit-priority lanes that speed up bus traffic on high-ridership routes in equity-seeking communities. Finally, transit authorities will need to re-evaluate fare enforcement regimes and inspection practices.
Electrification programs offer another opportunity to improve health outcomes. Reducing emissions from diesel locomotives will improve the respiratory health conditions that aggravate the impacts of viruses like COVID-19. Operators need to consider improvements to ventilation within stations, in tandem with existing deferred improvements to smoke exhaust systems.
Research Informed by New Behavioural Norms
Right now, we are all driving without a roadmap when it comes to pandemic response. Public health officials are still mapping out the behaviour of the COVID-19 virus and its impacts. Over time, the data will become clearer and decisions will be better informed. As planners, we can already map travel patterns and start modifying service levels in response to passenger needs. At Perkins and Will, we conduct post-occupancy surveys that map passenger behaviour as they move through a station and other transit facilities. We have used this data to identify passengers’ arrivals, queue backups, and where people linger. These surveys will need to be updated to accommodate new requirements for physical distancing with built-in flexibility to quickly respond to pandemics, or other rapidly-evolving situations.
Research into new materials and their performance will also impact station design. Early studies have shown that the coronavirus survives half as long on wood surfaces as it does on stainless steel. This, combined with wood’s embodied carbon and impact on customer well-being, could see its renewed use in a way that ennobles the transit experience. The antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties of copper and alloys, such as brass and bronze, are well known but rarely implemented. (We should, however, avoid engaging with antimicrobial materials which can do more harm than good). Finally, advanced materials like self-cleaning glass will likely see increased use along areas of high passenger traffic.
While the current period of disruption has imposed new habits on our lives, it has also opened our eyes to new ways of travelling across cities. We have collectively marvelled at clear blue skies, as the smog has receded over cities from L.A. to New Delhi. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we are cautiously starting to imagine a brighter future.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis will force us to re-evaluate how people travel across our cities – and to design stations and stops that support the new normal. A robust urban mobility system is essential, and if done well, we can get cities that are safer, more resilient and beautiful for decades to come.
Paul Kulig (OAA, MRAIC) is Principal of Urban Design for Perkins and Will’s Toronto Studio as well as Co-Lead for the firm’s global Urban Design Practice.
Perkins and Will’s Paul Kulig considers the evolution of transit systems – and private travel – after COVID-19.