Bustling crowds used to be a familiar sight for city-dwellers – whether it’s the rush of chattering schoolchildren, the sea of dreary faces on the morning commute, or the throng of movie enthusiasts at the cinema.

All that changed with Covid-19. Now, distance is almost synonymous with safety. With space becoming more important than ever, how can cities adapt their streets to stave off the spread of diseases?

For Amsterdam, a key part of the strategy is to reduce the number of cars in the city. Former Deputy Mayor for Traffic and Transport, Water and Air Quality Sharon Dijksma shared the city’s vision for transport at a webinar held by the Centre for Liveable Cities earlier this year.

How Covid-19 has changed city streets

The coronavirus outbreak has driven some people to avoid public spaces, including public transport vehicles. But Covid-19 should not be an excuse for transport policies to favour private cars, Dijksma said.

When the pandemic first struck, Amsterdam temporarily closed parking spaces so pedestrians could keep a safe distance on the pavement. This also gave cyclists more room to park their bikes. Healthcare professionals, however, could apply for temporary parking permits so they could get to work at the frontlines.

The city chose to close parking spaces that were used less frequently. Officials monitored the situation closely, and would reopen those spaces if the traffic situation became dangerous.

Amsterdam also closed residential streets to cars so people had the option to eat and play outside. Cyclists could temporarily use car lanes to give pedestrians more space.

As work and school shifted online, Amsterdam saw room for safer, more flexible arrangements. The city government spoke with schools, universities and offices to adjust their hours. In September, 23 companies in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area agreed to stagger working hours so employees could avoid rush hour traffic, wrote Teller Report.

Going car-lite

These measures are an extension of Amsterdam’s broader plan to reduce the space given to cars. It aims to reduce 10,000 public car park spaces in the city by 2025, and give the space to play and public facilities instead, said Dijksma.

These plans come as Amsterdam faces a pressing need for more space. It’s projected that it will need to build 290 000 extra homes by 2040, Dijksma shared. Cars are the most logical mode of transport to tackle, since they take up the most space compared to buses, bikes and pedestrians, she added.

“In order for us to create this extra public space without increasing the parking pressure in a neighborhood we need to offer alternatives to street parking and tempt people to use other forms of mobility,” said Dijksma. She shared three ways Amsterdam will do this.

First, it is building underground garages to shift cars out of the public space. Second, it has raised parking prices to nudge citizens towards public transport or shared vehicles.

Third, the city lowered the cap on the number of parking permits it will issue. “This does not mean people have to hand in their parking permit, it means that people who want a new permit are on the waiting list a bit longer,” she explained.

Dijksma also sees shared vehicles as an increasingly popular option in Amsterdam, especially amongst younger folks. “Young people don’t want to own cars, they just want to use it sometimes,’ she said.

The city government has partnered with private car sharing companies to support this trend. Car sharing companies pay the city in exchange for permits to offer their services to citizens. Drivers don’t have to pay for parking, and this reduces the total number of cars in the streets, she noted.

Social inclusion

Transport shouldn’t only be safe; it should also be inclusive. During the initial stages of the pandemic, people were avoiding public transport since it was difficult to keep a safe distance. Dijksma worked with the education department and private companies to loan 1600 bikes to students who couldn’t afford them, so they could still travel safely.

Amsterdam also has public transport coaches to help citizens with disabilities find their way around. Some might be afraid to use public transport on their own, she said. But with some guidance, they could learn to travel independently. “That is also a form of social inclusion. You are able to take your own steps, literally,” she said.

Handicapped citizens who depend on cars to get around can apply for a special permit. Not only can they park in a public space, they can do so for free. “We want not only to be a green and sustainable city, we also want to be a social city,” said Dijksma.

Amsterdam is working towards a vision in which cars are polite guests, rather than unpleasant space-hoggers, on its streets. This helped the city adapt to Covid-19 safe distancing measures quickly, and is set to make for a more liveable and accessible space in the long run.