Covid-19 & the Built Environment
1 May 2020

Covid-19 & the Built Environment

The coronavirus outbreak and social distancing requirements implemented by the UK government have led to a vast reduction in road and rail travel. It is understood that social distancing will be in place in some form for a significant length of time, including after the current lockdown restrictions are lifted. In addition, it is noted that the way the public live and work post the coronavirus outbreak may change with a shift towards more home working providing a greater emphasis on neighbourhood improvements and local placemaking.

The need for social distancing provides the opportunity to implement widespread change to road networks to support walking, cycling and placemaking, resolving current constraints and identifying permanent solutions. Permanent infrastructure supporting active travel is fundamental to enabling continued reductions to traffic at the current scale, leading to emission reductions, helping to address the climate emergency, whilst continually enabling social distancing.

Delivering real change

As with much around our streets and public spaces in the UK, we have seen a great response from various professionals identifying the opportunities to promote modal shift and improve streetscaping in our towns and cities. However, as has been the case with the climate crisis and general issues with traffic congestion relating back to 1960’s style transport planning and highway engineering, we find that implementation of these ideas is more complicated than initially apparent. At SYSTRA we have been discussing solutions to these issues and how best to navigate the opportunities resulting from this crisis to deliver implemented schemes and tangible benefits.

First of all, we have to understand the obstacles, which typically are the reliance on motor vehicles due to existing infrastructure, lack of quality public transport, and perception and intricacies of proposed solutions.

The opportunity presented is that, with the majority of the public confined to homes except for essential trips, traffic flows are down, and perception of the world into which we will emerge is open to be shaped.


What needs to be identified is the detail around implementation, how can we resolve complexities to quickly and easily deliver re-allocated space for active travel. This is made harder where we have busy residential streets with stationary, unused vehicles parked along both sides of the street.

The key will be to develop strategies for streets and networks based around implementable temporary measures that can be trialled, leading into engagement, public consultation and data collection to support the implementation of a permanent scheme. SYSTRA envisage these to focus on local neighbourhood improvements where public open spaces are at a premium, and district / citywide interventions to provide safe commuting routes particularly for essential workers.

Our Expertise

SYSTRA’s multi-disciplinary teams have expertise in delivering innovative solutions to support temporary and permanent interventions from concept and strategy to implementation. Services include; Transport Planning, Modelling, Urban Design and Traffic & Highway Engineering

Some examples of implementable emergency measures

  • Reduce speed limits and provide temporary traffic calming to reduce dominance of motor vehicles
  • Re-purpose second traffic lane of roads and/or suspend parking bays and reduce traffic lane widths to create temporary cycle lanes or increased footway space.
  • Where parking is along both sides of the road, and cannot be suspended, narrowing lanes could be used to provide central median refuges to assist pedestrians crossing.
  • Filter streets to stop rat running and limit through traffic, both full closures, one-way filters and time or width restriction filters.
  • Closing sections of road outside schools where temporary measures could also support general road safety improvements and future school street schemes.
  • Reduce size of junctions and restrict some turning movements to provide shorter crossings and more footway or space for cycling.
  • Event’ road closures (such as outside stadiums) where the surrounding infrastructure will already be available and locals will be used to easily navigate diversions.
  • Complimentary measures, including decluttering to create more usable footway space, and temporary cycle stands.

Global Response Exemplars

  • Re-allocation of road space for cycling using temporary road markings in Bogotá and Berlin.
  • Brussels has implemented pedestrian priority streets reducing speed limits to 20kph and allowing pedestrians to use all of the road.
  • In the UK, Brighton & Hove Council have looked to close Madeira Drive along the seafront to motor vehicle traffic.
  • Various cities in the US and Canada have closed key leisure routes along riverfronts and through parks to motor vehicle traffic.
  • Milan is looking to provide experimental interventions to provide a significant network of new cycleways and walking space.
  • Paris, Budapest and Mexico City are all developing proposals to create hundreds of kilometres of new cycle infrastructure

Data Collection and Engagement for Permanent Solutions

The requirement to provide greater active travel space provides a great opportunity to collect data, change public perception and promote support for changes to the road network on a permanent basis. From news articles and social media, it is already apparent that there has been an increase in active travel and the safety concerns around cycling in large urban areas have dissipated with the reduction in traffic.

Permanent change, however, will only be possible if the success of the temporary situation can be identified and strategies developed to evidence that these can be viable, permanent solutions to transport in our towns and cities. This will rely on quick action by government and local authorities, to implement measures, collect data, consult with the public and subsequently develop strategies and proposals for permanent solutions.

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