The Fence

Luisiana Paganelli Silva on COVID-19 and transport


Luisiana Paganelli Silva is an Urban Planner and Architect, formerly of Curitaba, Brazil, and now based in Melbourne.

She is currently undertaking a PhD at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University. The topic of Luisiana’s PhD is an exploration of how to integrate car sharing with urban systems and maximise its potential as a sustainable transport mode in terms of policies, regulations, and other governance mechanisms.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

We were compelled to participate in what is probably the most radical and at the same time audacious experiment of urban life (and Travel Demand Management measures, as a consequence) performed on a global scale. One that probably not even the most ambitious and revolutionary professionals, especially urban planners (even those who perhaps secretly dreamed about something like this), would dare to intentionally propose in “old normal” times. This enormous exercise, besides reducing congestion in many places, has put substantial pressure in some transport systems that were already struggling.

Restrictions and necessary adjustments have been impacting all modes differently; public transport networks, in particular, have been burdened with additional required cleaning, limited capacity and social distancing measures. By contrast to public transport, active transport has seen considerable encouragement, and a greater opportunity has emerged for local transportation agencies to partner with shared mobility providers to fill current gaps.

But, at the same time, some sustainable transport services have been forced to temporarily yield to the private car as a safe alternative for displacements in times of pandemic. In some way, this concession works as a psychological and health-related waiver, but one that could generate even greater costs to urban settlements in terms of mobility and environmental issues in the longer term if perpetuated.

Overall, cities became new types of living labs for professionals from different areas, and playgrounds for bold city planners and curious researchers who have been taking advantage of the opportunity to make necessary changes and learn some of the lessons this major experiment is offering to teach.

At a personal level, voluntarily or not, we were brutally taken out of a (perceived) comfort zone, having to change and adapt to new, but still unsettled, standards. For most of us, this means juggling interpersonal interactions, health threats, professional struggles, and/or (sometimes overwhelming) virtual activities. But for virtually everyone, this situation has triggered intensive reflective moments. Uncertainty has taken over many of our thoughts, flooding our minds with practical and existential questions, which for some time still may remain unanswered.

But simultaneously, we are being forced to rethink and reframe many aspects of our lives, eventually recognizing different roles, acknowledging new values and giving things new meanings. These moments represent outstanding opportunities to pursue long-lasting and fundamental changes, inside and, especially, outside of our home lives.

As a cyclist, apart from the restrictions and lack of physical contact imposed by the lockdown, my life as a transport user didn’t change much during the last months. Since 2017 when I moved to Melbourne, Australia for a Ph.D., I have finally been able to live my dream of an active multimodal and car-free lifestyle – which I’ve also been preaching for with my work and research. However, this moment has made me walk more and take less public transport during the peak of virus contamination for safety reasons, but I continued to cycle mostly everywhere, and can’t remember the last time when I got into a car. It was also very clear that active transport had an uptake during this crisis, as sidewalks, streets, parks, and paths have been loaded with more walkers and cyclists (among which many were clearly newcomers); phenomena also seen in different places around the world.

Nevertheless, as I answer these questions, lockdown in Australia is at its final stage, restrictions are easing, and many characteristics of the COVID-19 period have already started to change. The city doesn’t look like a deserted Jeffrey Smart painting anymore and the sounds of loud engines are (again) overwhelming the comforting, but somewhat worrisome, chirping of birds that echoed in largely empty streets during the previous months. Besides being (very) happy to see life returning to the city, I’ve noticed that cycling in some areas where space is shared with other vehicles is already going back to previously stressful levels. Stressful in the sense of having to anticipate which car door may open at me and dodging away from a vehicle that could sweep me from the street or cycling lane, while struggling to keep the bike in between the (sometimes too close) guardian lines. An experience that occasionally feels like being inside a contemporary transportation version of Picasso’s Guernica. Despite this, the whole cycling adventure is still worthwhile, as the benefits strongly override the occasional stressful moments.

Actually, in that sense, I need to confess how much I enjoyed several contrasting, but unique and empowering moments provided by the lockdown. During a few evenings, and days sometimes, it was surreal to be (or what seemed like being) one of the three people wandering through Melbourne CBD or suburbs, cycling in the middle of the previously very busy streets, enjoying the sounds of birds, as well as appreciating the outstanding sunsets, moonrises, views, and buildings of this beautiful city. Finally, just as some moments of the “normal” can make us feel like we are in hostile conflict zones, moments like these can make us gratefully understand the poetry in empty urban scenarios like Jeffrey Smart ones.

What changes would you like to see in the freight and logistics sector when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Without any doubt, as an urban planner and a cyclist, who works with, researches about and uses sustainable transport, I’d love to see people driving less, and cycling, walking and using public transport more, as well as the best practice transport planning changes that have long been advocated for.

But haven’t these big systemic changes been what we (planners, multidisciplinary professionals and conscious citizens) all know need to happen to improve urban life, transport, planning and sustainability since literally the last century, with or without a pandemic? Anyway, at the current moment – with extreme COVID-19 and climate change constraints – more than ever it seems like a great opportunity to finally and seriously tackle these systemic issues and try to achieve at least parts of their positive outcomes.

History has shown that pandemics and/or seriously contagious diseases provoked changes in urban form, spaces, and in how people interact in cities, locally or globally; this same reaction may not be different now and we will likely see significant changes coming after this crisis as well.

Thus, in addition to what I discussed above, moments like the present one can be outstanding opportunities to substantially transform cities. In fact, I come from and have worked most of my life as a municipal planner in a city whose history positively validates this point. In Brazil, Curitiba’s metamorphosis (not triggered by a pandemic, though) has already provided many lessons, especially in terms of urban and transport planning, with the TOD (transit-oriented development) and BRT (bus rapid transit) systems developed and implemented since the 1960s.

However, in my opinion, the most important takeaway or lesson that Curitiba can teach for the current situation is that we can certainly transform a city. This transformation required a good plan and a strategic confluence of factors, almost like the proverbial alignment of the planets. Factors that combined political will and compatible goals, funding (sometimes limited), creativity (to make the most of the available funding), competent technical teams, and visionary bold leaders – who kept sustainability as the core of initiatives and practices – with constant implementation, which was done experimentally for many years and had proper metric systems to monitor and evaluate the success. Anything but simple or easy, but entirely possible.

We had, and are still having to rethink and transform ourselves during this period, and it would be great to see the same reflective approach applied to a collective condition in cities (our “bigger scale homes”), to “re-read” our urban lives and make the necessary changes for a significant transformation. In that sense, independently of what the future brings for us to deal with, especially in the case of transport, it will be crucial to prepare mindsets and adjust behaviours of the new normal; decision-makers and planners will need to be constantly curious, informed, users of the transport modes being planned for, critical, adaptive, creative, and fast.

And what changes do you think will happen post-pandemic?

Honestly, I don’t know. It seems to me that the most appropriate answer here is a list of other questions, as we certainly have more questions than answers about the future at this stage. Also, it feels like the exact issues we will have to deal with are still “in the making”, and we haven’t seen their final shape yet, so the answers are quite uncertain. But the weeks, months (and years?) to come will surely help with some accurate responses.

Even so, imagining that what I mentioned in the previous answer could actually happen, a good start for the rethinking process in cities at the moment would be to recognize and define (somehow “re-understand”) the new values and meanings that have been emerging. This includes the roles involved in what is a chance for the commonly discussed “green recovery” from this pandemic. And I can already think of many! For example, the roles of:

  • Decision-makers and the decisions made – mainly informed decisions. Perhaps the most crucial roles as any outcome (positive or negative) of the post-COVID-19 time will depend on them.
  • Data, research, and technical guidance – even more important now and evidenced by the positive results seen in countries where decisions were based on expert’s advice during this pandemic.
  • Sense of community and collectivity, as a matter of collective thinking, action and, particularly, compliance.
  • Hygiene, safety protection, and social distancing measures. For example, could wearing masks become as normal as wearing shoes?
  • Technological tools that allow us to defeat physical reclusion and keep professional and social lives moving forward virtually, with significant impacts on commuting and travelling practices.
  • Public transport systems, that will need support to recover from the current collapse and keep their prevailing role in cities.
  • Active transport and the fantastic opportunity to keep the momentum of positive new habits acquired during the COVID-19 period, considering that they require proper infrastructure to thrive.
  • Car sharing (the specific topic of my research), with proper adjustments, cleaning and safety measures, as it has demonstrated potential to work as sustainable transport, by helping people live car-lite lives. Car sharing represents a viable option for those who renounce car ownership and tend to be more active and use public transport as a consequence, while still having the benefits of a car if or when they need to use one. However, to work that way car sharing needs to be implemented in collaboration with local governments and integrated with urban planning and transport systems. In other words, car sharing needs to be sustainable (financially and environmentally) for all the parts involved – users, operators and cities – which tends to happen when cities and operators understand each other and work together.
  • Travel Demand Management measures, especially confirmed and understood during this period.
  • Public space management, especially curb space and parking areas.
  • Tactical urbanism, with temporary measures that reuse or repurpose urban space to accommodate new demands, as well as its transformational power to embrace good changes and, eventually, make them permanent.
  • Collaboration between governments and private mobility providers to fill gaps that public transport is not able to tackle, created or evidenced by the current crisis.
  • Constantly learning from cities that have been making ambitious and audacious changes in terms of creating car-free/car-less and active transport friendly areas by putting many of the previous initiatives together.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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