Hard News by Russell Brown


Towards new human spaces

Good Friday in lockdown was a time to be alive and on a bicycle. Without even the supermarkets as an excusefor anyone to get in the car and drive somewhere, the roads were gloriously clear. Clear enough to carve big gentle curvess with worrying. People, too, were actually walking on the road in some places, but there was plenty of space for everyone.

When it ends we will, a friend of mine observed, miss these human-friendly spaces that have suddenly opened up for us.

Or maybe not. Perhaps things will change because they have to. Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter has announced new funding – immediately available to local authorities, but relevant at such time as Alert Level 4 ends – to quickly expand footpaths and roll out temporary new bike lanes. These won't be the endless "upgrade" works we currently  see in the cities, but quick solutions wrought with planter boxes, sticks and cones.

There are obvious reasons for this. Even if, as everyone hopes, we're able to drop back to a Level 3 Covid-19 alert status, we'll still want to be able to achieve physical distancing in public. Some people might see riding a bike as preferable to being cooped inside a bus or a train. There still won't be as many places drive to as we're used to.

There's also another issue I'm seeing quite a few people talk about – the paths that walkers and riders are usually expected to share are often not wide enough to provide for proper distancing, especially given the additional demand on them now.

We may well start to wonder about how we've designed our cities, with with people – who in central-city Auckland make more than half a million walking trips a day, a number that dwarfs vehicle journeys – almost always squeezed into thin strips along the sides of wide corridors of danger. Somehow, we've managed to make these corridors of danger the central facet of the places we live, and to give them most of the available public space.

Maybe we'll finally pedestrianise central Auckland. Or we'll eliminate the danger of powered scooters injuring people by making separate spaces for them, or expanding the space in which they can operate. At the least, I expect we'll hear fewer complaints that the new footpaths being built as part of the current K Road upgrade are unecessarily wide.

I am wary of the perils of seizing on the current crisis as a signal that the time for our respective causes has come (yes, I hear you, UBI folk, and I promise I'll read your post on Medium soon). But sometimes a crisis makes  sensible ideas look not just compelling but inevitable.

These instant news spaces are an idea being adopted in cities all over the world: in Berlin, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Denver, Sydney, Budapest and Bogota. Experts are urging governments and city authorities to urgently fund cycleways, not least because bikes are really good in urban emergencies (I've always felt the absence of bicycles is a major flaw in the dystopia of The Walking Dead).

It may be that this charge towards greater human human spaces will stick; that the outsize spatial ratio in the motor car's favour will be permanently corrected. That might see other benefits. Less  than a week in our lockdown NIWA scientists announced that air quality in Auckland had "dramatically improved". It's not realistic to suppose that cars won't return to the roads after our social restrictions are eased – most of us who ride or walk also drive sometimes, after all – but it might just be that in seeking to curb the virus we'll end up curbing the emissions that contribute to an even more serious long-term problem.

It might also be that the new behaviour we're seeing from city drivers –some of whom do seem to be driving slower and watching out better – will persist beyond the lockdown days. That might be the most prodigious and surprising change of all.

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