Stuck in the house with gymnasiums closed, more and more Americans are bringing out their bicycles. Eco-Counter, a company that creates stationary sensors counting pedestrians and cyclists as they pass by, notes an increase in cycling across the US throughout the last two weeks, in comparison to the same time interval last year.

To make it possible for walkers and cyclists to travel their neighbourhoods while keeping a buffer of space to separate from others, more and more cities are shutting down streets to through traffic, in what is being referred to as “slow street” measures. Aside from permitting socially-distanced exercise in the pandemic, some closures may hold into the future as officials make an attempt to limit America’s reliance on cars. What is happening, says Kyle Wagenschutz, director of local innovation for the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, is an unprecedented surge of implementation of slow street endeavours.

About 12 cities have closed off sections of their roads to vehicles, and more may pick up the trend, says Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Cyclists. These communities include Oakland, New York City, Denver, Portland, Burlington, and Madison. In Denver, officials declared the closing of lengths of eight roads measuring about 5.5 miles in April. Heather Burke, spokesperson for the Denver department of transportation, asserts that citizens lauded the change, appreciating the extra space provided to enjoy walks and rides out in the open during this pandemic.

While certain communities are targeting the densest regions to alleviate crowding, others are using the opportunity of the shutdown to set into motion their strategies for bike and pedestrian infrastructure. In Oakland, for instance, officials asserted that they would close 74 miles of streets; and as of May 1, nearly 16 miles had been installed. These “soft closures” employ signs, barricades, and cones to block a lane, keeping autos from entering unless a driver’s destination is located on the blocked street. McLeod states that the city pinpointed the streets to close according to its 2019 bike plan, which had specified prospective locations of new bicycle boulevards—streets that may not be permanent in purpose, but will be forever changed.

Slow streets also can be found around the world, according to Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, urban anthropologist at Drexel University. During the lockdown, Paris made public plans to morph parts of its streets into bikeways, and Rome will copy this strategy with 93 miles of roads. Johnston-Zimmerman sees this as a positive move with long-term environmental benefits.

Communities restricting vehicular access to tens or hundreds of miles in a brief timespan would have been unthinkable mere months ago; now, however, it could put into motion a transportation shift on an unimaginable scale. Wagenschutz believes that when communities construct several miles of trails or bicycle lanes at one time, that has little impact on bicycling. He says that, in order for cycling to grow in popularity, there must be a major change in how citizens move and travel.

It looks as though this trend will increase in popularity in the months to come. Wagenschutz has conversed with transportation officials from a few communities also interested in the slow street program, enacting this program in a manner that would coincide with their plans to ease car traffic. This list of cities features Lincoln, Nebraska, Memphis, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio. Key among officials’ worries is that continuous social distancing will cut down on public transit use, and enhance dependence on automobiles. This is an issue for cities, as many were experiencing transportation problems before COVID-19. So the prospect of seeing even five to 15 percent more autos on the streets is a frightening possibility.

Slow streets could resolve this issue. Wagenschutz says that the primary concern of most bikers is the threat that an automobile could pose to them. Slow streets assuage this fear with the offer of comfort and safety. Says survey data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately half of cyclists are displeased with how their cities design roadways for bicycle safety.

On the closed Denver roads, city spokesperson Burke says that two to four times more residents are biking and walking than customary. She says the city has not determined an end date for planned closures, and will continue to assess usage for now.

Slow streets also could help to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emission rates. The US Department of Transportation has discovered that more than half of vehicle expeditions are 10 miles or fewer in distance—a distance that could be biked. And with vehicle transportation serving as a primary source of pollution, biking some of those shorter expeditions could reduce carbon emissions and clean the air.

If successful, the US slow streets program could be replicated around the world—even and hopefully here in Australia!