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Looking at our streets differently now and after COVID-19

May 29, 2020

By Stephen Oliver

6 ways temporary infrastructure can help communities address changes for the future

Right now, our communities, cities, and transportation authorities are responding to the changes in travel caused by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, projects like the implementation of temporary infrastructure helped to define a place, calm traffic, fill network gaps, support commuters, or respond to safety concerns. On the ground, these may include reduced intersection sizes or added cycling lanes.

Currently, we see a wide range of actions implemented to help maintain social distance and move around differently. To aid this transition, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a library of resources. Enacting these ideas must be context specific and practical.

As we move forward, cities are taking different approaches to the operations of businesses and economies. For some, the sense of normalcy may add new pressures on the network, calling for thoughts about how temporary infrastructure can best serve the public. Here are six ways that temporary infrastructure can be rapidly installed as communities address necessary changes for the future.  

The RiverWalk Urban Waterfront Project in Calgary, Alberta.

1. Providing more than just space

The primary change is the widening of space for sidewalks or pathways. There are two key considerations: the public health and the activity. We must ensure the infrastructure addresses both, as the approach needs to provide enough physical space so that people can maintain the required distance to serve the public health.

As we move forward, cities are taking divergent approaches to the operations of businesses and economies.

It’s important to note that people are using public infrastructure differently. This is why a traffic lane repurposed for an undefined multiuse facility may not always be the best approach. Consider using a context-specific approach, such as a twinned path for directional pedestrians and traffic lane(s) for directional cyclists. This will better define the travel space, make more users feel comfortable, and provide an infrastructure template that can be maintained safely post-COVID. 

2. Using parklets

Using vacant parking to provide patio space, retail space, or an undefined public space is well established in the toolbox of temporary infrastructure. In cities where business and restaurants are limited to half capacity, the ability to spill the business into adjacent parking spaces is a key to address both public health and economic activity.  

Mural wall adjacent to on-street parking parklet in downtown Norcross, Georgia.

3. Employing the network

In most cases, cities understand that advertising the locations of temporary infrastructure could generate more activity—making social distancing harder. The network provides an opportunity to help people intuitively find the space that best suits them. Some off-corridor signage can direct people to better streets for a walk or bike.

Taking a design intervention around a corner to an equally constrained street can naturally bring people over without a large-scale communications effort. Finally, using knowledge of existing active mode gaps can point to smaller-scale projects that open large pieces of network, such as addressing missing infrastructure on a bridge.  

4. Expanding transit stops

Transit has suffered both in ridership and revenue. Reduced service hours and missing stop infrastructure are things that we can address to accommodate increased passenger wait times. For essential workers who rely on public transit, the ability to maintain a safe distance on their trips needs to be considered and can be. How? Through simple design options, such as a temporary platform expansion, temporary sheltering, or lighting improvements.  

5. Serving the user

Walkers of dogs and children walkers should unite—at a distance of course! With playgrounds and dog parks closed in many cities, these are critical users to consider. There are a few interventions that can make the environment more friendly for dog and children walkers.

For example, providing temporary waste bins and protection around the base of trees can make it easier for those walking dogs. Also, children want to play and explore. So, leverage the neighborhood’s interactivity to create community scavenger hunts, themes with community history or art, space for temporary plantings, or seating areas.

Consider using a context-specific approach, such as a twinned path for directional pedestrians and traffic lane(s) for directional cyclists.

6. Supporting community building

Those who follow social media have seen art—even small chalk art—organically appear. For civic groups, these techniques have long been community builders. Improvised campaigns such as letters to neighbors, neighborhoods, or cities are appearing literally on the street. There are ways this can be made easier and more effective. First, an invitation to participate (like a sign) can draw people together to an activity. Similarly, providing a better canvas like painting the pathway white or painting a picture frame can make the intent clear. 

It is important to consider that this activity is occurring somewhere different than we would normally find it. Oftentimes, the tactical interventions are leveraged around community centers, major active transportation corridors, or conflict areas. Interventions are now centered on recreational pathways or residential areas. It will not take a pandemic to draw people out if the right facilities are provided and placed where people prefer.

Think now about the future

As economies start to open, there will be pressure to shrink the sidewalks again. This may lead to pressure to make the new cycleways disappear. Interventions such as disabling pedestrian beg buttons at stop lights could simply be undone. The pylons marking additional walkways could disappear.

There are those that want to keep this kind of infrastructure in place. We know it may be time to update what is possible, depending on how feasible it is. If this is what your community wants to look like and move like, start thinking about what is possible today and what “intermediate” options may look like tomorrow. Consider using a roadmap for outlining the long-term needs. This is, if nothing else, an opportunity to reemerge as a city changed—and not for the worse.

Wondering how to implement temporary measures or develop a long-term plan for what you have on the ground now? We have a team for that. Learn more about our community development team.

  • Stephen Oliver

    An urban planner, project manager, and public engagement specialist, Stephen promotes efficient movement in cities through the design of transit and multimodal projects.

    Contact Stephen
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