Planning for sustainable Open Streets in pandemic cities

Daniel Rhoads, Albert Solé-Ribalta, Marta C. González, Javier Borge-Holthoefer


In the wake of the pandemic, the inadequacy of urban sidewalks to comply with social distancing remains untackled in academy. Beyond isolated efforts (from sidewalk widenings to car-free Open Streets), there is a need for a large-scale and quantitative strategy for cities to handle the challenges that COVID-19 poses in the use of public space. The main obstacle is a generalized lack of publicly available data on sidewalk infrastructure worldwide, and thus city governments have not yet benefited from a complex systems approach of treating urban sidewalks as networks. Here, we leverage sidewalk geometries from ten cities in three continents, to first analyze sidewalk and roadbed geometries, and find that cities most often present an arrogant distribution of public space: imbalanced and unfair with respect to pedestrians. Then, we connect these geometries to build a sidewalk network –adjacent, but not assimilable to road networks, so fertile in urban science. In a no-intervention scenario, we apply percolation theory to examine whether the sidewalk infrastructure in cities can withstand the tight pandemic social distancing imposed on our streets. The resulting collapse of sidewalk networks, often at widths below three meters, calls for a cautious strategy, taking into account the interdependencies between a city’s sidewalk and road networks, as any improvement for pedestrians comes at a cost for motor transport. With notable success, we propose a shared-effort heuristic that delays the sidewalk connectivity breakdown, while preserving the road network’s functionality.