3 Jun 2020

Will Covid change the way we move around ?

From Nine To Noon, 9:25 am on 3 June 2020

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change the way we move around? Transport scientist Dr Simon Kingham is the Ministry of Transport chief science advisor, University of Canterbury professor of geography, and passionate cyclist.

His job is to ensure that advice to Ministers is evidence-based. Dr Kingham hasn't personally owned a car since mid-1990s, instead riding his bike everywhere he can.

Two cyclists with protective equipment are approaching an intersection in a busy part of the city towards the setting sun.

Photo: 123RF

He says during the Covid-19 lockdown many people took to walking and cycling for the first time, as people were encouraged to exercise in their own areas. A range of initiatives are now underway to try to make those temporary behaviours permanent - such as widened footpaths and temporary cycle lanes.

Dr Kingham tells Kathryn Ryan it is too early to tell whether people maintain those routines post-lockdown.

“At the moment we don’t know because obviously what we are looking is long-term change, because we know at the moment some people are still working from home. We know at the moment public transport capacity is down still, because we have social distancing.

“So we don’t know. Of course, we know from places that have experienced similar things it is possible that some people we change their behaviour in the long-term, but we also know to really get that to happen you probably want to try and encourage it. We know what some of the barriers to walking and cycling and using other modes of transport are.”

Regions around the country are now trialling wider footpaths. He says local authorities realise walking and cycling are currently the best ways to accommodate social distancing measures as a means of keeping Covid at bay.

“You have your own bubble around you, or certainly you do when you’re cycling and so some cities are putting in temporary infrastructure and so the New Zealand Transport Agency put out a programme called Innovating Streets, which they already had anyway to implement but they set up a special Covid-19 bit, which allowed councils to apply for funds to do this.

“So, you’ll start seeing this if you haven’t already seen this certainly in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and Dunedin. You’ll see temporary bike lanes and footpaths going to create more space.”

He says there is evidence that businesses with cycleways and wider footpaths do better, despite concerns that subsequent lack of parking has the opposite effect.

Kingham says planning is key, as is community buy-in, which has not always been achieved in New Zealand when such initiatives had been introduced.

“It’s a case of providing this evidence to suggest these places might be better off if they have cycleways and footpaths outside… Pretty much every study I’ve seen suggests businesses do better in the medium term.

“One possibility is providing support for these businesses in the short-term to get through that initial period and the initial period that is often not good is the building period.

“So sometimes we get confused about what happens when you’re physically building the cycleway as opposed to when it’s there, because clearly when it’s being built you lose a lot of business because no one’s passing and in fact you produce a barrier in front of certain shops and businesses.”

He says some studies suggest cyclists also spend more money than people with cars and that businesses like cafes and restaurants benefit from having cycle parks that can accommodate more bicycles than cars.

A study in Portland, Oregon, he says, found that businesses owners actually wanted cycle parking at the front of their buildings because bicycle are visually porous and didn’t obscure their businesses from the road. With wider footpaths cafes could set up more tables and outside spaces too.

“If you pedestrianise research shows that when there’s more people walking past, bikes pull in and park etc, actually you get more people shopping and spending in some of these streets.”

Disabled parking could be accommodated too, with only limited demand for space to do so. Kingham says it must be remembered that many disabled people didn’t drive and that wider pathways allowed for better access for mobility scooters and wheelchairs.

The fact that public transport is at 20 percent because of social distancing meant alternative means of transport were in the spotlight and safety concerns going forward would keep these in public view.

The long-term challenge was to incentivise people transitioning to these alternatives, which also included greater use of electric cars.