The Covid-19 lockdown has redefined mobility in many European cities. With cars being restricted, streets emptied and public transport ridership currently low, city mayors in Europe expanded cycling lanes and gave more space to pedestrians to ensure citizens could be outside while also guaranteeing the social distance. As a result of these measures, air pollution dropped across Europe. In Milan, people could see the mountains clearly where usually pollution hindered the view and, in Paris, the air was cleaner than in the last 40 years.
Several European cities quickly responded by implementing new mobility measures and, with some leading examples, many others began to follow. In Poland, Krakow, Gdansk and Poznan have begun to change their urban design, giving more space to walking and cycling. And Berlin, for example, was among the first European cities to introduce pop-up bike lanes.
The Covid-19 lockdown has accelerated a trend toward rethinking urban space as cities moved to further redesign streets and public spaces. Even though some European cities were already implementing such mobility measures before, the lockdown has given an unexpected, historic opportunity to continue to reshape cities and it has made clear that cleaner cities are not only possible but necessary, especially after research began to correlate bad air quality with the immediate health threat.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warned of growing evidence that air pollution was making Covid-19 worse, as people living in polluted areas were more at risk from Covid-19. These findings pushed air pollution to the headlines because it became tangible and immediate to people, pushing cities to do the right thing.
The clean transport NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) followed this research and, along with their previous expertise in urban mobility, they began to share good examples of cities who quickly adapted to the new circumstances, urging other governments to follow.
T&E is working closely with city officials and mayors to push for bigger public spaces, zero-emission zones within city centres, and more charging infrastructures for e-bikes and electric cars. Every city has a different urban design and different dynamics, which is why T&E is also working on creating more detailed policies for several cities to keep their air pollution at its lowest levels.
The signs are encouraging. Brussels and London are redesigning the city centre with speed limits, increasing space to pedestrians and bikes. In Milan and Rome, a discussion on creating more cycling space is on the table. And in Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has promised more investment in providing cleaner air to the city. In fact, the outcome of the recent local elections in France confirmed the strong demand for clean air measures: Not only was Hidalgo reelected on the promise of stepping up her policies for clean air and a livable capital, but France’s largest cities – including Marseille, Lyon, Bordeaux and Strasbourg – also chose environmentalist candidates that strongly committed to eradicating toxic pollution.
However, with the lockdown being lifted in most European cities, pollution numbers are rapidly moving towards normal levels, something that urban residents want to avoid.
In an international survey conducted by YouGov for T&E and EPHA in 21 European cities, a large majority of citizens do not want to see air pollution return to pre-Covid-19 levels after they experienced good clean air. The poll found that three out of four people want to see a change in their cities, even if it means they must reallocate more space to walking, cycling and public transport. Two-thirds agree that polluting cars be banned from entering city centres if this is needed to clean up the air.
“People have taken a deep breath of clean air and decided to keep it”, says Sascha Marschang, EPHA acting Secretary-General. The new mobility measures resulted in quieter and cleaner cities, the urban life environmentalists and green-city planners have been demanding for years and which now citizens want to keep.