European cities face transport challenges as lockdowns lift

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, rue de Rivoli in Paris was a busy, often smoggy, street choked with traffic where cars, buses, and bikes jostled for room between Haussmann-era arcades and the Louvre museum. 

Now, as they prepare to lift France’s strict lockdown, city planners want to transform the east-west axis into a so-called bike highway from which passenger cars would be banned, although buses and taxis would be allowed. 

Cities across Europe are grappling with the same challenge: how to allow people to start moving around again safely so as to get them back to work and into shops. Authorities are considering measures that range from widening pavements by reclaiming parking spots to adding buses. Many will also require people to wear masks while travelling on public transport.

If realised, the Paris project would be an example of what the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has dubbed “tactical urbanism” — re-engineering the city to meet the new needs of the Covid-19 era. Other plans include letting cafés and restaurants occupy more space on pavements, and closing streets around schools to prevent crowds gathering at pick-up and drop-off times.

The mayor, who has long been a proponent of cycling, is trying to prevent a rush back to cars by workers scared of taking public transport amid risks of infection.

To that end, the city and national government plan to spend €20m on a package to encourage cyclists, including creating 50km of temporary cycle lanes along major commuting routes, €50 handouts to repair old bikes, and free “back in the saddle” lessons to encourage the rusty or wary. Before the crisis, Paris had been trying to double the ranks of cyclists to 20 per cent of commuters, and city leaders think Covid-19 could help their cause.

“If everyone goes back to cars, it will be a nightmare,” said Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor who also looks after town planning for Ms Hidalgo. “Our secret dream is that the temporary becomes permanent.”

Other European cities are also leaning on cycling to take pressure off public transport: Milan is planning 35km of new bike lanes, and Brussels 40km.

Crowded metros, buses and trains create favourable conditions for the virus to spread, but the routes they ply are also essential urban arteries, carrying key workers from suburbs to shops and offices.

To ensure space on public transport is reserved for those who need it, municipal authorities are asking companies to allow people to work from home as much as possible and to stagger office hours to avoid congestion.

Paris is also planning to enforce social distancing on public transport. This week, white lines spaced a metre apart have appeared in stations and blue stickers on chairs read “For everyone’s health, please keep this seat empty.”

Social distancing markers on the concourse of Gare du Nord railway station in Paris

Social distancing markers on the concourse of Gare du Nord railway station in Paris © Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

The policy has been controversial, and was opposed by the companies running bus and train systems, such as SNCF and RATP, which warned it would reduce capacity to roughly one-third of normal. By one estimate, a bus that usually carries 60 people would only carry 20, and a metro train 180 instead of 700.

In a letter sent to the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, the companies instead urged simply relying on masks to protect commuters. “We think wearing masks but without strict rules on social distancing is the best way to get out of quarantine,” the letter said. “Otherwise we fear potential chaos.”

But those companies are being overruled by the government and city authorities are having to fall in line. 

Valérie Pécresse, president of the region Île-de-France, admitted that there were tensions with RATP and SNCF who said they might be forced to shut down lines and stations if they could not manage social distancing.

“It is going to be a colossal challenge,” said Ms Pécresse. She says she will need 5,000 people to police the rules.

In Asia, authorities largely side-stepped this issue by not requiring social distancing to be respected on public transport, said Mohamed Mezghani, who heads UITP, a trade body of public transport operators. Instead, operators added more capacity and relied on people wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus. 

“In Asia, people are used to wearing masks, but in Europe masks are new,” he said. “The big difference is in Asia they do not attempt to do social distancing in public transport.”

Italy is taking a similar approach to France, with masks being required nationwide on public transport, and social distancing being recommended. In Spain, Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister, has said that the use of masks on public transport is “highly recommended” and will remain so after the end of the lockdown. 

In Germany, policies vary by region, but in Berlin wearing masks is now compulsory on all public transport, although social distancing is not required. 

bar chart of annual metro journeys by city in Europe showing Paris and London provide almost 1.5bn journeys annually

Ms Pécresse said that it was difficult to predict how the Paris transport system would hold up given all the unknowns such as how many people would continue to work remotely and if companies would modify hours. “We are really in a situation that nobody has ever lived through before.”

Editor’s note

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As she waited for a train on Monday afternoon, Fatima Morin, a 37-year-old cleaner who works at Paris-area hospitals, said she was worried about overcrowding on her usual commute on line 13. The north-south line is usually the capital’s most crowded, ferrying workers from working-class suburbs with few other transport options.

 “It is fine now, but I can’t imagine how we’ll all fit in there once more people start going back to work,” she said from behind a blue surgical mask. 

“I don’t think a few painted lines on the floor are going to make a big difference when there are hundreds of people here.”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Miles Johnson and Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Rome

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