Can the pandemic situation generate walkable cities?

by Leticia Sabino and Louise Uchôa — SampaPé!

Article originally published on issue #33 of MONU magazine — ISBN 18603211

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Moving in the city during the pandemic

Two months and 11 days after the start of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic by COVID-19. To contain the spreading menace, people and authorities had to create collective strategies and change behaviours. This battle between virus and human kind also threatened the existence and maintenance of one of the major human creations: cities. As the symbol of diverse experiences and casual encounters between different people, urban environments were challenged to convince and in some cases inforce their population to stay at home as a primary measure to hold contagion.

Under these circumstances, one of the central urban issues becomes even more evident and demanded to be faced urgently: people’s access to basic needs such as products, services, work and health. This new context put to test cities’ resilience capability to provide safer and better access and movement conditions for urban residents.

In this matter, WHO recommended people and municipalities to take action in creating better conditions to stimulate most of commuting to be done by active modes: walking and cycling. The organization advocates for active modes as the best option to keep safe distance between people, stay healthy and avoid other negative externalities — such as air pollution. On the other hand, public transport — the backbone of mobility systems in almost all major cities and usually perceived as a sustainable option — was considered unsafe and not recommended by health specialists, since it promotes gathering and crowd in a closed space for a long time. Therefore, avoiding trains, tubes and bus trips became imperative in cities.

Hence, it is noticeable that the context of the pandemic highlighted the unwalkable situation in cities around the world, from different development models and stages. While in some European cities this was evidenced mainly by the lack of spaces and the unbalanced street distribution for active transport, in major Latin American cities this was combined to the unfair territorial distribution, which precludes walking distance to access basic needs.

This territorial organization common to Latin American cities, in summary means central and high income neighbourhoods concentrate facilities and institutions (hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets), which are scarce in peripheral and low income neighbourhoods — aggravating social inequalities. Besides that, the population from peripheries are also the majority of essential workers, which have no other choice but to do long distance trips everyday, not only to access services and their jobs, but also to maintain cities working during the quarantine.

Image 1: Map of formal job access by active economic population in São Paulo’s districts. It evidences how concentrated it is in the central area. Comparing the best index with the worse the inequality is 247 times. (2)

Leadership and policy decisions may also aggravate cities’ inequality reinforced by its systems. In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, for instance, one of the first urban mobility measures adopted by the municipalities during quarantine was to reduce the public transport fleet and capacity. With no other alternative measure combined, the passenger crowd on buses and subway stations increased 80%. (3)

Considering the urban reality imposed by the pandemic, walkable cities have become an urgent environmental goal to contain the virus, whilst maintaining urban conviviality in the short term, and to build resilience in the long-term. Most of all, to be a safe environment for all people during a pandemic, cities have to provide what people need within walkable distance through good infrastructure to guarantee safe and democratic access for everyone. It is critical to eliminate long distance commutes and travels, produced by the spread and segregated current city mode, while creating space and conditions for active transport modes, especially walking.

What is walkability?

Walking and walkability are different concepts. Once walking is the act of moving the body through steps, walkability is related to the conditions in which this activity is promoted in cities, considering the interaction between some spatial layers, such as: the built environment, the natural environment, individual feelings and other people’s behaviour. Walkability is usually used as an index to evaluate how inviting is to walk in a city considering different urban scales — city, neighbourhood and streets — and improve the walking conditions through a continuous process.

On its first elaboration — 1993 by Chris Bradshaw (4) — ten topics, such as the age children walk by themselves and women’s safety, were the basis to compose an index which grades and points out what needs to be improved in the walkability of places. On a more contemporary perspective, walkability has been summarized to be measured by four key elements of the walking experience: being useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting (Speck, 2012).

Regarding that, it is possible to evidence a huge gap between European major cities’ walkability in comparison to Latin America’s. Referring to road safety, in London 57 pedestrians were killed whilst walking (5) in 2018, whereas in São Paulo this number skipped to 349(6). This means Sao Paulo is around 7 times more fatal for pedestrians than London. However, in South America’s biggest city (Sao Paulo) around 13 millions trips are made by foot everyday, whereas in the biggest European city (London) this number is down to 6 million (7). This evidence shows how walking and walkability differ also according to the urban context.

In Latin American cities, the frequency of walking as a means of transportation isn’t related to peoples’ preferences or to how favorable urban infrastructure is. In fact, for many Latin Americans, walking is the only option due to economical, urban and social reasons.

Nevertheless, whichever the context, Latin American or European, sidewalks’ infrastructure is a common challenge. Recent data analysis on sidewalks’ width show that the space reserved for walkers isn’t enough, it did not correspond to the demands from before the pandemic and it will not suffice for the current and coming periods. In Sao Paulo, 73% (8) sidewalks are less than 2.9 meters wide, meaning people walking cannot respect the minimum safe distance recommended by WHO. Curiously, Greater London has a similar number, since only 36% of sidewalks are at least 3 metres wide (9).

Image 2: Graphic of São Paulo’s sidewalk width percentage with data from Instituto Cordial (8)

As previously mentioned, the pandemic aggravated issues related to the lack of walkability. Therefore, more data and arguments in its favor have gained space and professional contribution, estimulating the people to push harder for improvements and city leaders to take action. Nonetheless, solving this problem has different challenges and outcomes in the mentioned contexts.

Finding a quick way out(doors)

Responding to the issues previously described, some cities quickly took action through street transformation aiming to provide safer and more suitable environments for people to move around actively, not only on necessary activities, but also to offer outdoors options during the pandemic social isolation phase.

The first urban tactical action, worldwide publicized, was the temporary cyclepath system implemented in Bogota, Colombia. The action took place on the same day the national quarantine started, March 25th, implementing around 70 km of new routes for cycling created only by cone allocation, people signings and monitoring on most conflicting crossings — complementing the 500 km of the existing network.

The efficiency of Bogota’s action was possible due to local leadership and active plans and contracts. Because of the city’s goal to be the most cyclable city in Latin America, several plans and actions for bikes have been built over the last years, such as a bike action plan and the municipal bike school (10). In addition, the city’s mayor is a progressive woman, which also propelled its responsible action.

The system was planned and implemented through phases in its emergencial format, and intends to promote modal migration of essential workers commuting, from public transport to bikes. However, first month results showed that the total everyday trips decreased during quarantine in proportions favouring active trips. Bike trips per day reduced to 200.000 (¼ compared to before the pandemic), whereas trips by transmilenio, the major public transport system, decreased 70% (11). This shift was possible due to the quick transformation of car street space into space for people on bikes, but also evidenced it’s unfair territorial distribution once bike trips for necessary activities are more than 7km long — highlighting the urgency of land policies for an effective and fair urban change.

Going north, in the United States of America, another type of quick response also gained media attention and inspired other North American cities: open streets in residential areas for leisure and sports practice. Oakland, a mid size city just besides San Francisco, started implementing residential open streets on April 11th with only four local streets. Quickly, the program became more structured and a network has been growing. In this action the main objective is to offer public spaces closer to people’s houses in which they could maintain their physical and mental health with safe distance from other people.

In a very simple operation, streets have their access blocked for cars and other motorized vehicles — except for residents and essential services — by soft and movable traffic signs on the corners. The initiative integrated an already existing program called Oakland Slow Streets (12) in which bike routes and traffic calming measures were being implemented. As part of the new initiative, the municipal government created an interaction channel with citizenship by phone and online in which people can report problems on the open streets and also apply their streets to be part of the open street scheme. This can be considered very audacious once 64% of daily commutes in Oakland are made in private cars and 82% of households have a car. Also during the pandemic, the car dependent model of cities proved to be a failure for resident’s health, motivating fast changes in streets without any resistance or polemic, on the contrary, it counted on people’s support and sometimes initiative.

Not as quick as the cities before mentioned, other cities joined the movement for healthier, safer and more sustainable streets through refurbishing asphalt areas into more people-friendly, focused on walking and cycling space. Some outstanding cities in this process are Buenos Aires and Paris. Both cities showed a very complex and structured plan spread around the territory provoking new urban mobility and street use paradigmas; and also reinforcing the value of neighbourhoods and compact cities which fits the walkability principles.

Buenos Aires mainly aimed for two types of solution: commercial open streets on neighbourhood centralities and tactical sidewalk expansion in important connectors. The main goal is to stimulate trips within 50 blocks to be made by foot or bike — this trip length represents 40% of total daily trips (13). The plan implemented nine pedestrian zones distributed around the city, varying between two and twenty two blocks — depending on commercial density and presence. Sidewalks extension also came combined with slowing speed down, in order to generate a safer condition. Signage and information about the new street use and reinforcing safe distancing, also composed the city’s preparation for gradual openings.

However, it must be highlighted that this sturdy plan is not by chance. The city has been investing in walkability plans and actions since 2013, with the famous change of July 9th Avenue into a more equitable road and the “microcentro” area transformation into a 10km/h shared zone. The urgent context of the pandemic was a clear catalyst of the city’s walkability improvement intention.

Image 3: Emergencial open streets in Buenos Aires (14)
Image 4: New signage in Buenos Aires for operational open streets in commercial zones (15)

In Paris several solutions were also combined in order to accelerate a pre pandemic city plan to promote the compact city concept, known as “15 minutes city” (16). The concept is to provide opportunities and access to everything citizens need within 15 minutes by bike or walking from their residence. The actions included open streets around schools, car free avenues and a bike network connecting all the metropolitan area with 750 km of bike lanes. For this plan implementation around 72% car streets parking were transformed into cycling space. The reelection of Paris’ female mayor during the pandemic confirms the approval of this plan by the people, since she is the main enthusiast of this change.

London also reacted to transform its reality through creating the Streetspace Plan (17). The plan intends to reduce public transport use by 80% through its replacement by active transport modes. Strategies include open streets or pavement extension around commercial areas and transport hubs. Also important connector streets were transformed into car-free zones — where only buses, bikes and walking is permitted. Hence, the British approach chooses to go in the opposite direction: the one of a collective strategy, facing cars’ facilitated and privileged access as prejudicial.

Considering cities’ actions around the globe, not only the ones presented in this article, it is possible to classify the tactical urbanism solutions in five main types: open streets, sidewalk extension, street speed reduction, temporary cycle lanes and compact city actions. Remembering it also depends on local regulations, governance and previous plans.

Expanding from the city level, two national cases of investment in tactical urbanism focused on promoting more active cities must be highlighted: the United Kingdom and New Zealand. In the UK, 2 billion pounds from the sustainable transport budget of 5 billion, were redirected to walking and cycling initiatives, being the first 250 million reallocated for financing tactical and immediate actions. In addition to that, visioning a long-term paradigma change, the National Government has created a national cycling and walking commissioner (18).

In the meantime, in New Zealand a national fund called Innovating Streets for People (19) was created to deliver more than 7 million New Zealand dollars for projects that prioritize active transport modes — besides the five solutions already mentioned it also includes parklets installation and pop up events. The fund has a participative character, since projects can be submitted by public managers, stakeholders and the population in general. Hence, showing that such urban actions can also be motivated and negotiated on a bigger scale: country.

Even though every city could only rapidly implement those transformations based on this moment’s urgency, the majority of them expect for a lasting change that may surpass urban structure. These fast changes may strengthen collectivity and make people more conscious, demanding for walkable and fair urban environments. As a result, this will reorganize the dense coexistence in cities in a hamonic way, besides having the power of building new urban imaginaries.

Future of cities

In Cities for a small planet, the italian architect, Richard Rogers, states that we are the first global civilization (20). Therefore, we are bound to experience global periods of stress and shocks which demand resilient cities and communities to surpass them. Aware of the different urban scenarios worldwide, the United Nations Habitat elaborated the Guide for City Resilience Profiling Tool (21), to help multiple cities to build their resilience consistently. The guide highlights four key elements to be identified while building resilience: identity and context, local governments and stakeholders, existing challenges and urban elements — such as public spaces, mobility systems.

On this matter, Rogers (1997) also argues that the compact city can be the way to design cities in which communities thrive, focusing on personal mobility and prioritizing pedestrians to achieve quality of life. Hence, tactical urbanism actions implemented during the pandemic to resignify street space, can be the kickoff for walkable futures and resilient cities. However, as highlighted before, the same urban solutions present different realization, outcome and effectiveness, intrinsically connected to each urban context. In Europe the tactical redistribution of spaces is facilitated by the more cohesive urban territory and infrastructure. Thus, these actions only need to be consolidated in order to promote walkability.

On the other hand, in Latin American cities’ tactical actions are short term solutions to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, but unlikely to stir changes in the urban inequality. In this context, besides the street space unbalanced distribution, inequality is also manifested on long travel distances and poor mobility systems to access basic services — a result of the sparse urban territory. Length and territorial distribution cannot be solved with wider sidewalks and cyclepaths, and can only be reversed with a set of policies to promote compact cities.

Therefore, tactical urbanism cannot be faced as a key solution to all urban challenges, but it may be the provocation necessary to start significant changes in multiple urban scales and also in people’s minds. Following it, walkability has to be taken seriously by authorities, planners and citizens at all city levels. Leading changes and responsible policies on land prices, social housing, emission, local business, job offer and so, in order to build resilience, save humanity and cities, our major collective creation.

A virus has made people look back and reexperience walking as a primary means of transportation. In the future, cities must provide walkable conditions to guarantee that the urban environment will continue to be a place of coexistence, co-creation and exchange. After all, being a global civilization also means the domino effect does not stand only for a crisis, such as the spread of a virus. Actions, solutions and examples of success can also disseminate and multiply changes throughout the globe. Thus, a global pact for walkable cities has to be built if we want to keep cities on an evolving collective process, and the fast actions and new perspectives from the pandemic situation can lead us to that.


(1) WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (2020). Moving around during the COVID-19 outbreak. Access:

(2) REDE NOSSA SÃO PAULO (2019) . Mapa da Desigualdade 2019. São Paulo. Access:

(3) BERTONI, Estevão (2020). Por que o transporte coletivo é um entrave na pandemia. Nexo, Brazil. 16 June, 2020. Access: https://é-um-entrave-na-pandemia

(4) BRADSHAW, Chris (1993). Creating — And Using — A Rating System For Neighborhood

Walkability Towards An Agenda For Local Heroes. 14th International Pedestrian

Conference, Boulder, Colorado. 1 October, 1993. Access:

(5) TRANSPORT FOR LONDON (2019). Casualties in Greater London during 2018. July 2019. Access:

(6) COMPANHIA DE ENGENHARIA DE TRÁFEGO (2019). Relatório anual de acidentes de trânsito — 2018. São Paulo. Access:

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(8) INSTITUTO CORDIAL (2020). Distribuição de largura de calçada em São Paulo. Access:

(9) UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON (2020). Street Space for Social Distancing. London. Access:

(10) INSTITUTO DISTRITAL DE RECREACIÓN Y DEPORTES. Escuela de la bicicleta. Access:

(11) ALCALDÍA MAYOR DE BOGOTÁ DC (2020). Conoce cómo se mueve Bogotá en cuarentena. Bogotá. Access:

(12) CITY OF OAKLAND (2020). Oakland Slow Streets. Access:

(13) PARABRISAS (2020). Cómo será la transformación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Access:

(14) BUENOS AIRES CIUDAD (2020). Mapa con las intervenciones de calles, veredas y centros comerciales. Buenos Aires. Access:

(15) BUENOS AIRES CIUDAD (2020). Cómo se preparó la Ciudad para el regreso al espacio público. Buenos Aires. Access:

(16) PARIS (2020) . Mobilités : découvrez la carte des nouveaux aménagements. Access:

(17) TRANSPORT FOR LONDON (2020). Street Space for London. Access:

(18) GOV UK (2020). £2 billion package to create new era for cycling and walking.Access:

(19) NZ TRANSPORT AGENCY (2020). Innovating streets.


(20) ROGERS, Richard. Cities for a small planet. 1997, p. 13.

(21) UN HABITAT (2018). Guide for City Resilience Profiling Tool. Access:


SampaPé! Is a brazilian NGO which acts on building more walkable cities with people since 2012. Throughout the years it has mobilized a series of actions and consultancy regarding walkability, mobility, public spaces and gender equality in Sao Paulo, where it is based, and also in other Brazilian cities, such as Curitiba.


Leticia Sabino, urban designer and business administrator focused on walking and empathy. Founder and director of NGO SampaPé!, member of International Federation of Pedestrian (IFP). Graduated in Urban Design and City Planning at UCL (University College London), Dreamer and mobilizer of the Open Street programme in Sao Paulo.

Louise Uchôa, architect and urban planner with a masters in Sustainable Architecture of Multi-Scale Project by the Politecnico di Milano. Integrated the research group responsible for the exhibition MSTC — Housing as a Citizenship Practice for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Works as collaborator to SampaPé!, structuring a path towards a more humanist walkable city.

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ONG que tem como fim melhorar a experiência de caminhar nas cidades.

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