As restrictions on movement slowly lift across the world, people are stepping out—to commute, protest, and convene—on to streets visibly changed by the coronavirus pandemic. As cities grapple with the unique transportation challenge of keeping their citizens apart, Covid-19 has provided an opportunity to reimagine our roads.
The history of Paris offers us something of a parallel. By the mid-19th century the French capital was reeling from decades of violence and disease. Cholera was in the water, and the end of the 1848 revolution lingered in the air. In 1853, Napoleon III tasked Georges-Eugène Haussmann with modernizing the city. The French official opened up the city’s dense medieval alleyways, transforming them into the broad boulevards Paris is famous for today, relieving overcrowding and resulting in a healthier, more beautiful and open city. (The new expansive streets also helped to hinder insurrectionists and provide quick passage for troops.)
The resulting design, which created a core with numerous expansive and walkable streets, has helped the city of Paris navigate its Covid-19 reopening more successfully than others. But so has modern politics and policy. The city’s socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has been actively reorienting streets to favor walkers and cyclists since 2014. Motivated by the climate and health crises resulting from the city’s famously high pollution levels, Hidalgo has spent the last few years banning automobiles in many places, redesigning historical intersections, and shutting major thoroughfares, including one along the Seine which is now a 3.3 km (2 miles) long car-free zone in the heart of the city. Barge restaurants float alongside, games are painted on the pavement for children, and in the summer cafés pop up along the walk. Today, Paris has the greatest percentage of people in a European city that count walking as all or part of their commute.