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Cities Are Taking Advantage Of Less Traffic To Rethink Their Roads

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Streets are noticeably quiet now with stay-at-home orders in place. Gone are the rattling trucks, the smell of exhaust and the gridlock, and in their place are joggers, cyclists and dog walkers - many of them wearing masks, all looking to stay active during the lockdown. And some cities are taking advantage of this moment to rethink how people can use the roads. Alex Davies wrote about this for Wired, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

ALEX DAVIES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So you live in Berkeley, Calif., and I understand that they have disabled the buttons that pedestrians press to cross the street. Why did they do that?

DAVIES: They did that for a basic public health reason. These are the little metal buttons that you push when, as a pedestrian, you want to get a walk signal the next time the light turns red which, otherwise, you wouldn't automatically get. And the idea is that, you know, if we can get everybody to be pushing one less thing in public that's a shared metal surface that could be holding pathogens and spreading...

CHANG: Right.

DAVIES: ...The coronavirus, then better to disable those.

CHANG: That sounds pretty reasonable. OK, and other cities are taking even bigger steps. They're closing streets to cars and just turning them into pedestrian zones. Tell us what you're seeing.

DAVIES: So a bunch of cities have done this because what's happened essentially is that the demand for street space, the demand among people to get outside hasn't really gone down. But the demand from cars has disappeared largely. So what you haven't said is people trapped inside who either need to walk to work now or need to walk to their public transit station or who just want to be outside for a jog or walk their dog or a breath of fresh air - and because now, all of a sudden, every person needs six feet of space around them, which is roughly the space, you know, your average passenger car needs...

CHANG: Good point.

DAVIES: ...Then cities - some cities have moved to actually shut down streets in certain areas and say, we're going to close traffic off to the streets - no more vehicles driving here. And that way, people just have that room that, in normal times, is dedicated to vehicles.

CHANG: Yeah.

DAVIES: It can now be used by pedestrians or people biking.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people also, you know - they rely on trains and buses to get to work. And with public transit now operating on way more limited schedules, you write that some cities are making it easier for people to bike. So how are they doing that exactly?

DAVIES: So Bogota, for example, in Colombia has been really progressive here. They've already got a pretty robust cycling infrastructure. But what they've done on some major streets is, because car traffic there is now so far down from its normal levels, they've been able to take a whole lane out of those streets. And they just lined it up with traffic cones, and they said, this is now a temporary bike lane. Berlin has accelerated plans that were already in the works to ramp up its bike network. Budapest has put in temporary bike lanes. And the idea here is that it's important for these networks to become more robust...

CHANG: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Because the people who need to get outside are not only the people who want to go outside for a walk, a breath of fresh air, keep their sanity intact. People still need to move around in this time, and cycling is an important way to do that, especially when public transit levels are greatly cut back.

CHANG: Alex Davies is the transportation editor at Wired.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

DAVIES: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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