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How COVID-19 is Reshaping Active Transportation

How the pandemic is changing the landscape of active transportation, and what that means for our world post-COVID.

Alex Kelly
by Alex Kelly

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people move around the world. We’ve been taking a closer look at how this has unfolded, and now are diving deeper into key transportation responses. As people adapt to COVID-19, they have been exploring more and more by foot and bicycle — active transportation is taking on new meaning. 

Finding space while social distancing 

Early in the pandemic, directives to stay home and prevent the spread of COVID-19 were widespread. As this period extended, elements of daily life still continued — people needed exercise, groceries, and some still needed to travel to work. Seeking alternatives to public transit or just options to get outside, people dusted off their bikes or running shoes, hitting the streets. 

North American cities, typically designed to prioritize vehicle traffic, suddenly experienced a surge of active transportation in the middle of a global public health crisis. Almost immediately, it was clear that social distancing and active transportation were at odds with one another. Cycling trails and sidewalks were congested as bike shops quickly sold out of stock.

Cities respond with changing landscape 

From Brampton to Bogota, city planners worked quickly to adapt to this new global trend. Over 100 countries responded by changing city infrastructure to support alternative transportation. Mexico City added nearly 130 km of temporary bike lanes, while Seattle permanently closed over 30 km of streets to most vehicle traffic. Critics have pointed out that Toronto has been slow to roll out infrastructure changes, despite the city’s evolving modifications. 

Key initiatives aim to increase social distancing space for people to move, while supporting business growth and sustainability through greater access to shops. Toronto’s CurbTO program tackles pedestrian bottlenecks, expanding sidewalks into curb lanes of roadways. The ActiveTO program opens up more of the city by quieting streets, closing major roads over the weekend, and expanding the cycling network. 


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These temporary measures are designed to give the city a bit more breathing room, and have opened up discussions about long term land-use planning. Cycling proponents argue that more needs to be done to support these positive transportation changes. However, funding for permanent infrastructure changes will be difficult to secure, as municipal and provincial resources are needed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staying safe

Being active outside takes on an entirely new meaning during the time of COVID-19. If you’re dusting off your bike after a long hiatus, it’s always a great idea to brush up on your cycling safety knowledge. No matter how you’re moving — whether you’re walking, running, or cycling — prepare for changes in routes as your neighbourhood adopts new routes, and stick to areas that aren’t already congested with others.

At the time of writing, there have been no conclusive, independently verified studies on the transmission of COVID-19 when exercising outdoors. However, physicians have recommended an abundance of caution when passing others, allowing more than two metres passing space where safely possible. Handily, this is about the length of a bicycle.

Experts also point out that following recommended personal hygiene protocol is just as important when cycling or exercising outside; avoid touching your face, wash your hands, and stay home if you present with any COVID-19 symptoms.

For active transportation to truly become a more sustainable practice, municipal initiatives require community participation and citizen engagement long after social distancing mandates are lifted. The rise of active transportation may be a good news story that arises from the COVID-19 pandemic, but only with continued support and adaptation from all.


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