Two viruses, one prescription: slow down

Elsevier, Transportation Research Procedia, Volume 60, 2022
Tolley R., Tranter P.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated communities throughout the world. However, the negative impacts of another pandemic, affecting cities worldwide, arguably rival those of COVID. This destructive global health problem, which we have largely ignored, has been described as the “hurry virus” – the culture of speed that dominates modern lives and cities, causing us to constantly strive to ‘go faster’. This hurry virus has comprehensively infected our city transport systems from the early 20th century. Since then, as speed became a more important goal in city planning than liveability, sustainability and walkability, the consequences for health – human, environmental and economic – have been profoundly damaging. This paper argues that to respond effectively to the hurry virus in city transport, a policy of creating ‘slow cities’ is required. This involves the simultaneous application of two synergistic strategies: slowing the speed of existing motor vehicle traffic; and encouraging greater use of the ‘slower’ active modes. Examples of where such policies have been introduced are discussed. The core of the paper shows how – serendipitously – the world-wide response to the COVID-19 virus in cities has produced policies, strategies and tactics that also provide an antidote to the ‘virus of hurry’. For example, we discuss how cities have rapidly added new or widened bike lanes and sidewalks, and opened streets for people by restricting, slowing or banning motorised traffic. In addition to the intended anti-COVID outcome of providing safer, socially distanced space in neighbourhoods, such policies deliver co-benefits of local healthy living and movement in less-polluted, ‘slower cities’, as well as help combat global heating by reducing CO2 emissions. The paper outlines urban design and operational principles that would promote both pandemic-resistance as well as slower, more local and healthier lives. We show how, in future pandemics, robust plans for rapid, effective action will be required to shut down inter-district connections and implement social distancing to ride out any outbreaks without lasting damage to the city. We discuss one promising strategy that involves relatively self-sufficient and independent precincts, such as 20-minute neighbourhoods that are internally accessible by foot, bike or scooter, that enable people to meet most of their daily needs within an 800 metre (20-minute) return trip from home. If a virus outbreak occurs in one neighbourhood, it can be temporarily closed and isolated from other neighbourhoods, while allowing them to function. The key point is that these responses to combat the COVID virus will produce co-benefits which combat another virus, that of ‘hurry’. The 20-minute COVID-protected city will, by definition, be a hurry-protected, slow city – and what is more – it will be a key component of combatting the overarching existential threat of climate breakdown. We conclude that achieving such co-benefits in cities that remain (or return to being) ‘fast’ would be far more challenging, if indeed possible at all. The pandemics of our time may allow us to reshape the behaviours, values and cultures both of urban residents and policy makers. The paper concludes that we have an unprecedented opportunity to reject the old normal and to re-imagine a new normal of cities that are slower, closer and healthier.