The shock of Corona in recent history is only comparable to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In both cases new rules and state powers were established almost overnight. This time it is not a question of fighting terrorism, but of preventing epidemics. But this time, too, almost all areas of public and private life are affected. The Corona crisis will have a particular impact on the future design and use of public space. Because of the need to protect against infection, it is likely that even after the current phase of rigid restrictions, distancing rules will have to be observed for the foreseeable future.
But it’s still in our hands. We can either allow further restrictions to be placed on public space or, by redistributing it, enable equal participation. This could go hand in hand with a transport policy that puts people at the centre, and at the same time takes better account of air pollution control and climate protection. Pedestrian traffic can be promoted by planning sufficient space on pavements. The capacities of public transport and railways must be increased to minimise the risk of infection. Car lanes can be reserved for bicycles to ensure safety and distance.
- Reflex reactions to corona
When human lives have to be saved, initially there is little time for long reflection. Because of the concentration on acutely urgent tasks, the discussion about what our life with Corona and after the initial restrictions could look like in the medium and long term is also only hesitant. But the curfews themselves also have a negative effect on the formation of opinion: Public lectures and debates, demonstrations and even meetings among friends and like-minded people can no longer take place other than online.
While the attacks of September 11 resulted in many state interventions in the private sphere, the Corona pandemic mainly affects our public freedoms. In addition to the public sphere as a forum for social self-understanding, Corona also affects public space in our urban quarters in a very concrete way. In other words: our living space beyond the private home, where we move freely in everyday life. Although the measures are justified by the current emergency situation, they are nonetheless far-reaching:
- In Bremen, gatherings of more than two persons are prohibited.
- The contact between people should be kept to a minimum.
- In public, a distance of 1.5 metres must be maintained.
- Public transport continues to operate with certain restrictions. But many people avoid them.
The fact that public space is threatened and subject to restrictions is nothing new in itself. Even before Corona, there had already been privatisations of the public sphere, which manifested themselves in the fundamental rights of shopping malls or in the occupation of a large part of the public street space by private motor vehicles, SUVs and mobile homes. Pedestrians and cyclists,each with their diverse mobility needs, have both literally and figuratively been marginalised. Treating the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as secondary to car traffic is a perspective that is baked into everyday life. Is there any reason to change this at a time of crisis?
2.Phase of crisis reflection
Now that the initial shock is over, political and civic society must reflect on what Corona will change in the use of public space, how things should continue after the acute crisis situation, and what steps are needed to reconcile equal and free participation, whilst continuing infection prevention. The streets are still empty; there is still time to make and practice new regulations. Because sooner or later the restrictions around leaving our homes will have to be lifted. By then we should have set up our public space in such a way that there is enough room for everyone, despite drastically increased distance requirements.
Now, the measures listed above are only temporary. So why should Corona permanently restrict public space? Well, observations in my own circle of acquaintances suggest that even after these measures have been relaxed, we will still move in public space differently than before: While some of my acquaintances in Berlin or Bremen switched from public transport to bicycles or are now covering longer distances on foot, other friends who were previously travelling using sustainable transport for ecological reasons are now taking their cars, practising car sharing or even renting a car. In order “not to infect others”, an acquaintance said in his defence. Those who cannot stay at home in their private four walls anyway often only venture out into traffic in their cars.
At the same time many people are already thinking about their summer holidays. According to the Caravaning Industrie-Verband Deutschland (CIVD), the camping industry hopes that in the medium term the motorhome will give a competitive advantage over holidays using public transport. After all, people could buy motorhomes to avoid infections in hotels or pensions and in means of transport such as airplanes, trains or buses.
- We are at a crossroads in terms of public space
The current development is still too recent to draw definitive and objective conclusions about changes in behaviour. However, the assumption is obvious: the car or motor home could become even more of an enclave of privacy in public space than it has been so far, namely a kind of infection barrier, and if necessary even a mobile quarantine station. This is all quite understandable and comprehensible. The risks of the virus and of unhindered infection should not be played down here. Nor should we forget that high-risk groups expect private vehicles to provide more control and better protection than public transport, at least as long as there is a risk of overcrowding.
On the other hand, a different, opposite development can be seen: The initial restrictions have reduced the number of road users overall. As a result, the road space becomes unregulated and wild at first, but also free again for long periods. There are videos on the Internet of animals reclaiming road space, such as herds of goats in the streets of a small Welsh town, trotting over crossings and feasting on neatly trimmed hedges in front gardens.In Berlin and other large cities, cyclists who have to get to work can also use multi-lane arterial roads, which are hardly used by cars, in a way that has not been possible for a long time. Pedestrians are enjoying the fresh air after two weeks without traffic jams and rush hours.
Similar to the handling of scarce goods, where panic buying can be observed just as much as the solidarity sewing of face masks or neighbourhood help when shopping, the crisis leads to opposing reactions. While many are withdrawing anxiously/responsibly into the private sphere, we can also take advantage of the opportunities offered by the opening of public space, at least temporarily. Sooner or later, however, it will be necessary to return to everyday life. According to current forecasts, it is not possible to wait until the infestation or vaccination of a large part of the population makes it unlikely that those at risk will be infected. This means that the streets will fill up again and the question will arise how to keep the necessary distances.
A new political framework must be set for this. Ideally, this framework should allow everyone to use public space freely and responsibly, without being subordinated to the dynamics of self-reinforcing privatisation. For the more people in public space would again, or even increasingly, be travelling with cars and mobile homes, the less space would be left for the rest of us. This in turn will intensify the shift towards individual motorised mobility. This would leave behind children, the elderly, the poor and many others who have no opportunity to use their own cars or who have decided to abolish the private car at some point.
- Other cities are active, good news from abroad
The corona crisis does not in itself lead to a shortage of public space due to the distancing rules. Rather, it demonstrates how unevenly public space has been distributed up to now.Especially in large cities, overcrowded parks and pavements currently often border on empty multi-lane roads and intersections. And in the countryside, the lack of buses, cycle paths and footpaths is now especially evident. In other words, in view of the new situation, if no traffic and road planning measures are taken to reduce the risk of infection, it is to be expected that many road users will switch to motorised private transport for lack of acceptable alternatives.
However, the situation is also very hopeful. Especially in the last few days, i.e. at the end of March, beginning of April 2020, the good news for the public sphere has arrived. Unfortunately, they came almost without exception from abroad: from Bogotá, from Canada, from New York, from Paris and Vienna. Everywhere there, lanes were officially opened for walking and cycling. This satisfied the citizens’ need for exercise and fresh air. At the same time, it was possible to observe the rules of distance in a more or less casual manner. Furthermore in New York,as a result of the corona crisis, there are even more far-reaching proposals for a “Network of Quiet Streets”. The idea is to link various districts by means of quiet side streets that are at least closed to through motor traffic.
In Berlin, on the other hand, many people complained at the weekend in good weather about overcrowded parks where jogging, which was still allowed, was hardly possible. On the way there, people tormented themselves over crowded pavements, past almost car-free streets. In response, the German FUSS e.V. (Fachverband Fußverkehr Deutschland FUSS e.V.) recommended that pedestrians should switch to clear and unobstructed road lanes, which the Berlin police warned against immediately and under threat of administrative offence proceedings. After all, in reaction to the Corona crisis, lanes for cyclists were already being set up in Berlin days ago without bureaucracy. After the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district had successfully completed a pilot project, other districts followed suit. Deutsche Umwelthilfe and Changing Cities are now generally calling for more space for walking and cycling in the cities.
- Bremen missing out on opportunities
In contrast, Bremen, a city that otherwise strives for a sustainable transport policy, seems to be overlooking this current development. This means that Bremen’s administration is not living up to its responsibility for the health of its citizens. According to information from the Traffic Monitoring Department of the Bremen Public Order Office (email of 31.3.2020), no measures are planned in the Hanseatic city on the Weser to enable distance rules for foot and bicycle traffic. On the contrary, enforcement in traffic is to be limited to keeping escape and rescue routes, hospital access roads, restricted areas and crossing areas clear. The general traffic surveillance, especially the task of keeping footpaths clear of parking offenders, should only be continued “after the crisis has been overcome” – as the letter states, “to the usual standards” (which for insiders in the notoriously negligent Bremen practice of monitoring stationary traffic must sound like a hidden threat).
It was also a fatal signal to thin out the public transport timetable of the BSAG, so that at rush hours at the beginning of the Corona crisis overcrowded buses were to be expected. Because under these conditions it was foreseeable that especially responsible people who work in the health sector or in critical infrastructures would be forced into cars. As is well known, reliability in public infrastructure is a decisive factor. Despite the lower demand, the timetable should have been adhered to in order to keep the buses and trams relatively empty, thus allowing safe distancing and not permanently alienating customers.
- Incompatibility of distance rules and illegal pavement parking
On 24.03.2020, i.e. a few days after the distancing rules were issued in the form of a general ruling, a guideline for the barrier-free design of buildings in public traffic areas was published in Bremen. The minimum width for footpaths is, after all, the 1.80 m proposed in the relevant guideline for the construction of city streets (RASt 06). Strictly speaking, this refers to the uniformly smooth paved so-called footpath in the middle of pavements. In addition, further parts of the pavement are the protective strips on both sides of a total of 70 cm (20 cm to the boundary of the property, where the pavement is typically small and where bicycles or garbage cans are often parked, and 50 cm to the kerb, where illegal parking is all too often tolerated).
According to this, Bremen pavements would normally have to be a total of 2.50 m wide from the property line to the curb. Since this is already the minimum width in order to allow undisturbed traffic, parking may only be ordered or permitted on considerably wider pavements. In Bremen, these prescribed pavement widths are completely utopian due to the narrowness of the streets in terraced house areas such as Findorff, Schwachhausen, the Neustadt or the Viertel. In almost all streets of these districts, the pavements, which are already far too narrow by the usual standards, are additionally restricted by illegal, pavement-mounted parking. Although this illegality is obvious, the city is currently facing proceedings before the administrative court: The three plaintiff parties all live in streets where such illegal parking exists on both sides of the road. This makes the pavements extremely narrow. They are therefore suing with the aim of achieving the effective enforcement of clear pavements in their respective streets.
- The current directive provides for only 20cm distance between pedestrians
All this was already true for the time before the Corona crisis. However, according to the recommendations of the Forschungsgesellschaft für Straßen- und Verkehrswesen (Research Association for Roads and Traffic), on which the newly adopted directive for Bremen is based, the distance between pedestrians who encounter each other is only 20 cms. The current measures, on the other hand, require a distance of 1.50 m. Therefore, during the corona crisis, pedestrian walkways should actually be at least 3.80 m wide in order to provide safe distance when passing. Now it may seem unworldly for the city to gear its normal urban and street planning to the crisis. What is even more irritating, however, is that in the event of a crisis, not even temporary measures are considered to solve the problem of the de facto much too narrow footpaths in Bremen.
Bremen needs to learn from the above-mentioned examples from other cities. At the very least, it would now be appropriate to ban pavement parking in the entire city area and in return to set up more Park & Ride facilities. Following Berlin’s example, ad hoc protected lanes for cyclists should be additionally designated on suitable streets, such as Parkallee or the so-called Heerstraßen, to offer them the opportunity to get through traffic safely and healthily. This would also defuse the struggle between cyclists and pedestrians for the scarce space at the roadside.
It is absolutely unacceptable that the traffic control authorities in Bremen tolerate illegal parking on footpaths and cycle paths for the duration of the crisis. Even the little space available for pedestrian and bicycle traffic according to the law is thus illegally expropriated, privatised by the car and taken away from the public. At present, both roads and footpaths are still relatively empty anyway. At a minimum, until everyday life returns to normal, precautions must be taken to provide sufficient public space for walking, cycling and public transport.
- As far as pedestrians are concerned, from now on it must be ensured that the distances on the footpaths can actually be maintained. Otherwise, the administration will create conditions in which infection cannot be avoided because the prescribed distances are not observed. To achieve this, the misappropriation of public space through pavement parking, despite the lack of footpath width, must be ended throughout Bremen. If necessary, roads must be completely closed to motor vehicle traffic.
- In addition, public transport capacity must not be further reduced. On the contrary, after the end of the strict initial restrictions, they must be increased, at least for the duration of the risk of infection, to such an extent that the use of public transport is possible at all times while maintaining safe distancing. Only then can passengers regain confidence in public transport. And only then can motor vehicle owners be expected to park their vehicles in P&R areas in the outskirts of the city.
- In addition, cycling must be made easier by the uncomplicated designation of additional cycle paths (example: protected cycle lanes).