WalkSydney - July 2020 newsletter - COVID-19 Special
It’s been three months since the last WalkSydney newsletter (about 5 years in normal time!). We couldn’t have possibly have realised how important walking would become this year, and how much our experiences of our own neighbourhoods and the central city would change, but here we are. In many ways, the events this year have reinforced the core of what we all strongly believe here at WalkSydney - walking is the future. As an important New York times feature published a few days ago says ‘I’ve seen a future without cars, and it’s amazing’.
This newsletter provides an update on COVD-19 related news in Sydney and further afield, and also provides some local non-COVID updates. In the final section, we’ll explore some of the broader trends that this is all playing into.
WalkSydney is turning one in a few months, and we will be having our Annual General Meeting (AGM) on the 7th of September. Details about joining us at WalkSydney are at the end of the newsletter. We want more members!
1. Some wins and losses for Sydney
Firstly, the sad news. While the road toll between Jan and May was substantially lower than previous years, reflecting the enormous drop in traffic volumes, tragically pedestrian and cycling deaths have increased over the same period. Data from Road Safety at Transport NSW shows two extra cyclists and a shocking ten more pedestrians have died between January and July this year. During this same period, New York’s pedestrian death rate decreased from 10 per month, to no deaths over two months. NSW is getting something deeply wrong here and these statistics clearly illustrate the urgent need for immediate changes for people walking, especially as the slow return to work continues.
There have been some successes.
Way back in late March the State government announced the gradual automation of push buttons in the centre of the City, and in health districts located, around the state. We sincerely hope these stay. This is one of those small emergency changes that quite radically shifts the prioritisation and power balance between motor vehicles and pedestrians.
Removing traffic from Centennial Park has been a huge success and made the space much more welcoming and human friendly. As Christopher Standen writes in this excellent article ‘It was meant to be the people’s park, not a car park’
In May the City of Sydney and NSW State government announced the creation of 6 new temporary cycleways, which was also paired with a reduction in traffic speed limits in associated areas to 40km/h, illustrating the beneficial relationship between cycling and walking. The first of these opened on Sydney Road and Henderson Road in Erskineville in early July. The City of Sydney has its own programme across the central city, although Regina Haertsch from WalkSydney has pointed out a few design flaws in the new plans. New research supports the observations that cycling has increased in the city since the beginning of the year.
NSW Planning recently launched the Streets As Shared Spaces program but we’d love to see a more significant rollout.
In non-COVID-19 news. WestConnex has announced their revised plans for the Crescent overpass. Sadly, the unnecessary overpass is staying, but they have dramatically improved the plans to cut off direct pedestrian access between the Glebe waterfront and Annandale. WalkSydney’s submission can be seen here. Also a few weeks ago Penrith announced the lowering of speeds to 40km/h, Liverpool just announced new 30km/h areas. Foreground has put together a collection of recent award-winning pedestrian projects from around Australia. Manly has cut most of its street speeds to 30km/h and become ‘the slowest suburb in NSW’. Change is happening.
WalkSydney’s president published a small photo essay recently capturing the day-to-day reality of poor design and upkeep of our footpaths. NSW could immediately embark on a footpath and maintenance upgrade programme to improve accessibility around the state.
The #SpaceForHealth campaign pushing for prioritising public space during the pandemic launched in May and continues to build momentum. Check out the excellent resources on their page.
An article in The Conversation at the beginning of May expressed the belief many of us share for the urgent need for a ‘global public space revolution’ to protect people in the short term, to improve cities, and as an urgent part of adapting to and mitigate against climate change over the next 5 years. Next we’ll look at the unfolding revolution that actually is occurring in many cities around the world.
2. Different approaches and different countries
Sydney’s relative success (so far at least) means transport has been the main focus (hence the cycleways). Overseas the closure of shops, transport, and other amenity has meant a much larger and more radical configuration of public space. This really is a public space revolution and will last long after COVID-19 and into the coming climate crisis.
Restaurants around the world have been spreading out onto streets, changing their by-laws, and creating the kind of emergency experience that we can’t help but wish was the norm. An Open Restaurants on Open Streets program has just been launched in New York. Tel Aviv has converted 11 streets into pedestrian zones. London was quick to establish an expanded plan for cycling and walking. Barcelona is removing carparks for new cycleways. Athens’ Mayor has promised to ‘liberate public space from cars and give it to people’ with a plan to transform tens of thousands of square meters into space for safe cycling and comfortable walking.
The excellent resource called Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery has been released by NACTO’sGlobal Designing Cities Initiative. Another extraordinary resource is this article about the CROW Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic’: ‘At great and regrettable cost, the COVID-19 pandemic has arguably, and temporarily, placed the world under a very Dutch assumption that sufficient walking space, and sometimes cycling space, should exist everywhere.’
New Zealand was the first country to fund bicycle popup lanes, but perversely their success in suppressing the virus has meant public life and full public transport returned before many of the projects were implemented.
Permanent changes are following. Seattle has declared that 20km of its residential roads will permanently close to most traffic. The re-elected mayor of Paris has a bold vision and is putting green ecology at its heart, halving car parks, banning diesel engines, and implementing 30km/h speed zones across the city. It’s visionary, and clearly part of the larger urban shift that needs to take place to respond to climate change. Milan is implementing a similarly bold and permanent Open Streets plan. Research across 21 cities in 6 European countries shows that residents want to keep the new open space transformations and keep cars out.
Even US cities are adapting to COVID-19 and confronting their radically car-based cities and culture. This excellent New Republic article sums it up well ‘This is a remarkable turn of events. Projects that in the past might have been delayed by years of study or vociferous objection from car drivers are now being installed in a matter of weeks or days. Mayors who once might have equivocated about balancing transportation needs are firmly declaring that streets that prioritise pedestrians and cyclists are not cute amenities, but necessities for a happy populace and a thriving economy.’
3. Bigger trends
Disasters are interesting because rather than introducing radical new ideas, they tend to either implement or accelerate ideas that are at hand or pending renewal. It’s becoming clear that COVID-19 is rapidly shifting our expectations of cities, the role of government, and the values and sensibilities of business.
We are seeing a profound shift in governance and economics with concerns for personal and public health and wellbeing now starting to supersede the singular focus on economic growth. Walking is closely tied to this. Early evidence suggests that high rates of COVID-19 deaths are associated with air pollution, and walkable cities are producing big gains in public health, reducing blood pressure and reducing stress.
There is clearly a complex entanglement of climate change, urban form, economic growth, transport, land values, housing, cars, and of course walking. Supporting walking with good infrastructure and design is one of those rare and simple actions that solves multiple complex problems at the same time.
So, let’s get on with it.
On behalf of WalkSydney
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