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The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many people inside their homes, letting them enjoy peace of mind and showing how cities can be like with less noise, congestion, traffic, and pollution. Parking lots and roads take up the majority of the land that can also be used for other useful establishments.

When home quarantine came into effect in the USA in March, streets and parking lots went deserted overnight. Within days, municipalities across the US started shifting these places to other uses that better suited the public. Experts who have studied the transportation behavior claim that people rely on cars, SUVs, and trucks. Various factors like weather, climatic conditions, and time restraints prevent people from using bicycles as their primary mode of transport. A simple step like starting to reconfigure the city streets can break down the transportation barriers and usher into a new culture of getting around town using means of transport.

In larger cities, nearly half of the car trips are less than 4 miles, and using cars for shorter distances costs more. For instance, traffic fatalities are soaring in several cities, even though cycling and walking rates are declining. Pollution from vehicles also contributes to climate change and worsens air quality. New visions for streets, where cars use less space and are replaced by smaller vehicles for individual riders, are gaining importance.

New modes of transport include e-bikes, e-scooters, and hoverboards. These vehicles have already been attracting attention even before COVID-19, complementing the conventional bicycles, whose sales have increased during the pandemic.

Thinking about the future of the cities suggests that solely relying on cars as a form of transport has run its course. By minimally modifying the existing infrastructure, city planners can repurpose roads and parking spaces while ensuring the same ease of reaching daily services. Emerging trends of mobility and changing mindsets can help deliver these opportunities. Bicycles and other small vehicles provide an idea to shift how city streets are used.

Researchers have also demonstrated that people will adopt new ways of getting around town when they are confident enough about the route to be safe to travel. Some streets affected by COVID-19 have reduced traffic lanes and closed roads to traffic as the first step. But they lack the network connectivity. Networks quickly develop as more people use them. The easiest way to build one that is scaled and purposed for people starts by identifying streets used to make short trips.

Experts say that leaders can decide which streets should prioritize vehicles such as bicycles instead of cars. Changes might also include physical demarcations in lanes and signs. These changes might require waivers to exempt them from adhering to current engineering guidelines and standards, restricting innovation.  

Big and small US cities are experimenting with different strategies and contending with long-standing financial concerns about which streets to change. For instance, Minneapolis has closed down parkways to cars, reserving them only for cyclists and walkers. Other cities are using this time to test new ways of sharing a broader array of streets among cyclists, pedestrians, and car drivers. Researchers are providing tools to identify the most promising places to reallocate spaces for pop-up cycleways.