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Commuters wearing protective masks ride their bicycles in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, March 16, 2020. Officials in Colombia’s capital have expanded bike routes, encouraging people to abandon crowded public transportation and the risk of catching the coronavirus. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press

The rising need for social distancing has been changing how we get around cities – and whether we get around at all.

Right now, schools and some businesses are closed and more people are working from home to try to slow the COVID-19 outbreak. That means less traffic and fewer people taking transit.

“There’s a huge reduction in traffic and urban personal travel,” says Lawrence Frank, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

In some places, the need to keep space between us is leading to a push, at least temporarily, for more active ways to get around.

Bogota, for instance, added 76 kilometres of temporary bike lanes to its 550-km bike network.

“They took some of their transit lanes and gave them to cyclists – this is a smart idea and their weather allows it,” says Ahmed El-Geneidy, a professor at McGill University’s School of Public Planning. “When you cycle, you’re distanced from other people.”

If the crisis continues for a longer period of time, El-Geneidy says he expects Canadian cities, including, Toronto and Montreal, to look into temporarily adding more bike lanes.

“If you’re not sick, you can take a walk around the block – you can take a bicycle ride as long as you’re staying away from people,” El-Geneidy says. “I’m not an expert in public health, but if we have congestion on cycling routes, then it’s useless.”

Long-term changes?

But what happens after all this is finally over and we don’t need to keep two metres away from each other?

“It will change something – what it will change, I don’t know for sure,” El-Geneidy says. “It can be a good time now to try biking and walking, and maybe in some places, we could see a return to more corner stores that people can walk to because people don’t want to take their cars or transit.”

Although, it’s also possible that the roads could be more crowded, at least temporarily, with individual vehicles than ever because some people will be spooked off public transit.

“Transit is not bad – we cannot allow this to be used to say that we shouldn’t be taking collective forms of transportation,” UBC’s Frank says. “That’s ridiculous. This is a short, unprecedented situation and we had time to react in advance.”

Reduction in pollution?

In China and Italy, one side-effect of people staying home because of COVID-19 is a drastic reduction in air pollution, Frank says.

According to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study, an estimated 3.4 million people worldwide died prematurely because of outdoor air pollution in 2017. During the lockdown, Frank expects China and Italy to see a drop in deaths from chronic diseases that are caused or worsened by pollution.

“This shows us that how we get around has a dramatic effect on pollution,” Frank says. “We’re monitoring COVID-19 and it’s terrifying, but at the same time, it might be that more lives were saved because of the reduction in vehicle use and air pollution.”

When these temporary restrictions end, this could be used as an opportunity for governments to change how we get around cities. They could invest more in transit, electrification and active transportation, including cycling , e-scooters and e-bikes, Frank says.

That would mean more urban density instead of increasing sprawl out to the suburbs, Frank says. People who get around by walking or cycling instead of solely in vehicles are, generally. healthier overall.

“You want to design a transportation system and lay out your cities so that there’s less vulnerability should something like this happen again,” Frank says. “We’d have to think past a contagious epidemic and make cities more conducive to biking and walking. It could have an incredible impact on chronic disease.”

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