Coronavirus (COVID-19): remaking our streets

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This blog highlights examples of action taken by local authorities across the world to temporarily alter the layout of streets during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.  These changes allow people to access essential services and take daily exercise while maintaining adequate separation distances and to cycle in safety – following guidance to avoid using public transport where possible.  These measures are being implemented using cheap, quickly installed barriers and road lining.  It then describes how such measures could be rolled-out, where required, across Scotland.

Background: Covid-19 and travel in the UK

It is currently an offence, under the provisions of the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, for a person to leave the place they are living unless one of a number of exceptions apply, including:

  • obtaining basic necessities for those in the same household or for a vulnerable person
  • to take exercise, either alone or with other members of their household
  • to seek medical assistance
  • to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person
  • to donate blood
  • to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible to do so from the place they are living.

As might be expected, this has resulted in a significant reduction in travel across the UK, particularly by public transport, as shown in the attached slide from the UK Government Coronavirus (COVID-19) briefing on 12 April 2020:

Covid blog

Maintaining safe social distancing while walking, wheeling or running

If people must go outside they have been advised to stay at least 2m (6 feet 7 inches) from anyone that they do not live with.  However, many pavements are too narrow, or too cluttered, to allow people to pass while leaving a 2m gap.  This leaves people with the option of passing at an unsafe distance, moving onto the carriageway or crossing to the other side of the road. These options could either increase the risk of infection or, on busier roads, a traffic collision.  Moving off and on a pavement where there is no dropped kerb may be difficult, or even impossible, for people with mobility problems or visual impairments.

Cities across the world have taken the opportunity presented by reduced road traffic volumes to temporarily widen pavements or restrict access by motorised vehicles, allowing people to maintain a safe distance from others while out walking, wheeling (movement by a wheelchair user) or running.  Examples include:

  • City of Oakland (California, USA): The City of Oakland launched Oakland Slow Streets on 11 April 2020 which will close 74 miles of roads (10% of roads in the city) to through-traffic: “…so that people can more comfortably use these low-traffic streets for physically distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking all across the City.”
  • City of Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada): The City of Vancouver has closed eastbound lanes on Beach Avenue, a major thoroughfare, and all roads, except Highway 99, in Stanley Park – its largest green space. The aim being to “…limit large gatherings and help you keep 2 m away from others while exercising and getting fresh air.”
  • Stadt Wien (Vienna, Austria): The City of Vienna has created nine temporary meeting zones, reallocating road space from motorised traffic to pedestrians in areas of high population density with narrow pavements and no parks or open spaces in the immediate vicinity. In addition, it has fully pedestrianised 20 other streets.

Safe cycling during the Covid-19 pandemic

The significant reduction in road traffic, combined with the substantial curtailment of public transport and the requirement to stay 2m apart while outside has led to an increase in cycling in Scotland and elsewhere.  Again, taking advantage of reduced road traffic, a number of cities have rolled-out temporary segregated cycle lanes or widened existing lanes to allow cyclists to pass at a safe distance.  Examples include:

  • Municipality of Budapest (Budapest, Hungary): The Municipality of Budapest is establishing a network of segregated cycle lanes on arterial routes to cater for increased cycle traffic, with the aim of providing “…residents with an alternative and safer way to travel during the coronavirus pandemic.”
  • City of Bogota (Bogota, Colombia): The City of Bogota is creating a 72 mile long temporary network of segregated cycle lanes, building on its existing network, along strategic routes to allow for an alternative to the heavily congested TransMilenio bus service – where maintaining safe distances between passengers is all but impossible at peak times.
  • Berlin (Berlin, Germany): The Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection is establishing a network of temporary segregated cycle lanes, and widening existing lanes, to “…avoid the risk of infection, to cover mandatory distances and to allow sports in the fresh air.”
  • New Zealand: The New Zealand Government will cover 90% of the cost incurred by local authorities in establishing temporary cycle lanes, or pavement extensions, in the period following the most stringent period (Alert Level 4) of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. The aim being “…to help people keep 2 metres of physical distance after the Alert Level 4 lockdown”.

Action taken in Scotland and the rest of the UK

To date, no Scottish or UK local authority has temporarily widened pavements or created new segregated cycle lanes in response to the social distancing requirements and changed transport priorities created by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  However, several councils, such as Brighton and Hove City Council and the London Borough of Hackney, are considering such changes.

What can Scottish local authorities do?

Scottish local authorities, should they wish to do so, could quickly follow the example set by international counterparts described above, using existing roads law.

A local authority wishing to temporarily widen a pavement or create a segregated cycleway, where this is required to mitigate danger to the public, may need to obtain a Temporary Traffic Regulation Order (TTRO) before taking action.  A TTRO is likely to be required where the proposed change would interfere with existing parking, waiting, loading or other restrictions created by an earlier Traffic Regulation Order.  The TTRO approval process requires the authority making the order to, at least seven days before it comes into force, publish a notice of their intention in a local newspaper circulating in the vicinity of the affected road(s) and to also inform Police Scotland.  The duration of a TTRO is normally limited to a maximum of 18 months,

A Scottish local authority wishing to widen a pavement or create a segregated cycleway may need to obtain a redetermination of public rights of passage order, which can involve a lengthy approval process, before doing so.  However, an authority can automatically introduce an experimental redetermination order, lasting no more than 18 months, without the need to follow any approval process.

Obviously, this is only a very brief summary of the relevant law.  Many other factors affect the ability of Scottish local authorities to temporarily alter the layout of our streets, including the availability of suitably qualified staff to design and install such changes, funding, the physical capacity of streets and the potential impact of temporary facilities on other essential transport services.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher, Transport and Planning