Why has the delivery of active transportation infrastructure been so slow, despite evidence of its myriad health and climate benefits? In "Pop-Up Cycleways: How a COVID-19 'Policy Window' Changed the Relationship Between Urban Planning, Transport, and Health in Sydney, Australia," (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 2), authors Mike Harris and Peter McCue of the University of New South Wales take up this question with respect to the installation of pop-up bike lanes in Sydney at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Figure 1. COVID-19 related policy developments.
The authors draw on J.W. Kingdon's multiple stream theory, which explains policy change in terms of the alignment of problem identification, solution availability, and political preparation.
Their sources included reports, strategies, surveys, and legislation related to bicycle planning. They also conducted semistructured interviews with city and state officials on the impact of COVID-19 on internal attitudes towards biking. They then analyzed the documents and interviews thematically in terms of Kingdon's three streams.
For the problem stream, they observed that the impact of social distancing measures on transit ridership coupled with the speed of Sydney's return-to-office movement upgraded the need for active transportation to mitigate potential traffic congestion.
Considering the policy stream, they noted the publication of numerous reports, surveys, and plans over the years confirming the technical feasibility, public acceptability, and resource adequacy of active transportation infrastructure. Addressing the politics stream, they noted the appointment of a new minister at the state level who was committed to "resolve past friction between the city and state governments over cycleways."
In this context, they identified the policy window as the passage of the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment, which "allowed the minister for planning to make an order for development to be carried out without normal planning approvals if in the interest of health, safety, and welfare of the public." The outcome of this policy window was the construction of six pop-up bike lanes within three months, comprising 38 percent of Sydney's bike lanes.
For practitioners, the authors emphasize the importance of staying committed to evidence-based solutions as well as early political coalition-building so as to quickly take advantage of policy windows when they arise.
Yet I wonder what lessons they would offer to planners when policy windows close. That is, how do you make sure the policy change sticks in the long run? As we have seen recently with the removal of outdoor dining areas, parklets, and open streets in many jurisdictions, the long-term viability of pandemic-era public realm policies is by no means guaranteed.
Besides the internal capacity-building that the authors cite, it seems to me that demonstrating strong public buy-in — by conducting careful measurement and evaluation of bike ridership — is crucial to maintaining the policy change in the face of resurgent opposition from competitors for urban street space.
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About the author
Noah Levine is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.