This post was originally published by Heidi in July 2020.

Image: CICLOVÍAS EMERGENTES Lineamientos de Implementación – Gobierno de la Ciudad de México

Good leaders seek ways to change what needs to be changed. And for climate, safety and equity, there is much that needs to be changed.

One powerful, democratic tool to enable change, is disruption. This is a post about how to use it effectively.

We’ve seen Covid creating disruption worldwide. While this has been devastating in many ways, the transport response has seen residents in many cities enjoying cleaner, quieter, safer streets:

It has been estimated that since the beginning of the recovery European cities have allocated €823 million to active mobility, with 1,221 km of bicycle lanes being planned, of which 545 km are already in use. The Italian capital, Rome, ranked first having added 150 km of cycle lanes, followed by Bologna (94.3 km) and Brussels with 83.9 km.

As the Global Designing Cities Initiative says:

The COVID-19 global pandemic altered every aspect of urban life in recent months. In response, city transportation officials around the world have quickly implemented new street design and management tools to keep essential workers and goods moving, provide safe access to grocery stores and other essential businesses, and ensure that people have safe space for social/physical distancing while getting outside. These evolving practices will shape our cities as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and are key to our long-term recovery.

In Mexico and Ireland, in San Francisco, Dallas and London, streets are being reclaimed. Paris is rolling out 650 km of pop-up cycleways, but even places like Salt Lake City are improving safety with paint and a few plant pots:

And it’s popular! People like living on healthy streets:

A survey by YouGov was reported in Politico:

New polling data from 21 cities across six European countries shows a clear majority in favor of measures geared at preventing a return to pre-pandemic levels of air pollution. There is strong support for new zero emissions zones, banning cars from urban areas and maintaining road space gains for bike lanes and pedestrian paths implemented during the health crisis.

Politically, this is huge.

Disruption and Demonstration

The disruption of temporary change becomes a powerful tool when it enables demonstration of important concepts (like fewer traffic lanes and more space for people). Of course, the disruption needn’t be as big as a pandemic. It could be a machine, a law, a medicine, a war, a food, a service, a disaster, a renovation.

Disruption was the topic of a NZ paper released this month, Streets for transport and health: The opportunity of a temporary road closure for neighbourhood connection, activity and wellbeing. The paper examines a small disruption, and shows how public understanding can rise when residents experience a temporary change.

In this Christchurch case, the street needed to be closed to vehicles in order to install a new wastewater pipeline down the middle of the connecting main road. The street was:

partially closed… to through traffic… from early October 2018 through to the first week of December and was reinstated after the Christmas break for a further six weeks… people walking or cycling could still get through

The study, by Kingham, Curl and Banwell, found

that with less traffic, residents reclaimed the streets for recreational activity and it led to increased and enhanced social connection

The temporary closure fundamentally changed how residents used their street:

It is useful research, illustrating a democratic pathway towards permanent change:

only by having the opportunity to experience the benefits of a lower traffic and slower speed street through a temporary road closure, were residents able to understand and appreciate the impacts such benefits brought.

This raises the potential for road closures to be seen as an opportunity for local councils to… try out new temporary streetscapes with a view to making them permanent if successful.

As residents said:

“I like the idea of a cul-de-sac, I didn’t think of it until it closed”

“if it closed forever, I would say whoopee”

Street basketball. Image credit: Kingham et al.

Rather than a way to “sneak changes through”, making improvements during a disruption serves democracy well. If concepts are demonstrated before there’s any consultation:

  • people can experience the idea before making their mind up about it;
  • it reassures people who have concerns about change;
  • it prevents fanciful concerns from dominating the discussion during consultation;
  • it can inspire local people to become involved in the planning process, leading to more informed community discussions.


When disruptions result in permanent behaviour change, they are a type of discontinuity. Since we’ve left our response to climate change too late, discontinuities are our best hope for achieving the radical change the IPCC says we need to achieve.

Covid has enabled a discontinuity. Cities are moving to permanent changes in their streets, their speed limits, their planning processes, and their transport budgets. As a result, residents will enjoy healthier, lower-carbon, more pleasant, and more active lifestyles.

The realisation that lower-carbon living is possible and brings an improvement in lifestyle is critically important – it brings citizens hope that democracy will willingly respond to climate change. Fuelled by hope, voters are far more likely to agree to other proposed climate action.

London is implementing 114 low traffic neighbourhoods, 154 school streets, 202 town centre changes, 38 strategic cycling schemes

In Tāmaki Makaurau, the experiences of lockdown were beautifully captured by Dr Kirsty Wild of Women in Urbanism, in her research, Life in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, and powerfully illustrated by Eloise Gibson in Life in Light Traffic. This quote really stands out for me:

“I’m pregnant right now, and being able to ride a bicycle without any fear of cars is wonderful… This is especially good because my pregnancy has caused sciatic nerve pain that’s so bad that I can’t walk for exercise (or sometimes even just around my house) any more – cycling is all I’ve got, and it’s such a relief to be able to move without pain. I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing right now if the lockdown hadn’t happened…”

Here, as elsewhere, the lockdown was an opportunity for a discontinuity.

Image: CICLOVÍAS EMERGENTES Lineamientos de Implementación – Gobierno de la Ciudad de México


Only small, almost token, innovations were tried in New Zealand during Covid. However, many more projects are on their way – Covid created huge interest in Innovating Streets for People, the programme Waka Kotahi / NZTA launched last year to enable the transport sector to use creativity and innovation:

By testing innovations in streets with communities before committing to major investment, road controlling authorities can have more assurance that they’re getting the direction of change right.

The authorities in larger NZ cities seemed to have the biggest difficulty in understanding that the projects weren’t just about social distancing but about innovation, and that they needed to show a pathway to permanence:

They must also be able to demonstrate the value of using tactical urbanism to advance a future permanent change, and explain how they will move to permanent changes.

Auckland Transport didn’t innovate a lot during the lockdown, but from their surveys of public sentiment, it is clear that Aucklanders want more, with 73% in favour of using programmes like Innovating Streets, and only 9% opposed.

In short, innovation is critically important for enabling change, and it is popular with the public. It probably appeals to everyone’s twin desires for improvements and value-for-money.

So what prevents Auckland Transport from using the approach throughout their programmes? Especially when great international precedents for combining tactical urbanism with public works exist. Some recent work – funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – looked into what the difficulties are. Called Healthy Future Mobility, one of the strands of the research was called “Growing Niche Innovations”:

How can we foster a culture of innovation, demonstration, and different ways of working through niche projects to advance health, safety, and wider societal wellbeing?

They found:

Planning systems and locked-in timelines prevent innovation from happening…

The rigid nature of the National Land Transport Programme (NLTP) and other funding systems prevents niche projects from starting…

the funding requires a scope of work and the scope of work requires quality stakeholder engagement to define it… engagement is not possible because funding is not in place, and conversations might raise community expectations, with the risk of non-delivery…

funding and delivery leadership by senior management is often lacking. Internal champions doing things quietly are great, but in some ways they act to paper the cracks, and meanwhile system-level leadership is lacking… They need better support…

Sometimes ‘just getting on with it’ is what communities want, especially for obvious things, but even that can be hard. Experimenting with temporary measures offers a way forward in these situations…


Solutions to the climate emergency exist, we just need to speed up our capability for change. The Zero Carbon Bill says:

In considering how an emissions budget may realistically be met, the Commission and the Minister must include… identification of key opportunities for emissions reductions and removals in New Zealand…

This year has expanded our ideas of what “realistic” ways to meet the emissions budget can be. The “key opportunities” include a complete transformation of our transport system, and this has become obvious to many more people.

After lockdown, the healthy streets of Auckland disappeared rapidly. Congestion, traffic danger, pedestrian deaths, air pollution and limited travel choices are negatively affecting our lives again – because the opportunity to harness disruption was wasted, irresponsibly.

Local government now has a duty to respond to the evidence we’ve seen, that:

  • good planning uses disruption as an opportunity for demonstration
  • demonstrating change reduces opposition to it becoming permanent
  • behaviour can shift quickly in a disruption, and this new behaviour can become permanent if we innovate to allow it to stick.

There’s a silver lining to every disruption we face. We cannot squander these opportunities for raising public understanding of the benefits of change. Arguments that

  • proposals are going “too far, too fast” or
  • we can’t change anything without first “bringing the public along”

are excuses by leaders unwilling to front the changes we need. We have the evidence about how to speed things up democratically and “bring the public along” through demonstration. If local government continue to ignore the power of disruption, they are placing Aucklanders at risk of being left saddled with public spaces and infrastructure unfit for their needs.

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  1. “Life after Covid – Europeans want to keep their cities car-free”.

    Meanwhile, in NZ, traffic volumes have just returned to the high that we reached in 2019, apparently. So, no progress at all then. That’s so sad…

      1. What – sitting in traffic jams again? You really enjoy that Vance? Seems fairly moronic to me !

      2. You’re doing what traffic engineers and transport planners intended you to do. If they had designed cycleways and public transport systems that’s what you’d be doing.
        It’s a car centric system by design, your preferences don’t come into it.

        1. No if we had provided cycleways instead of motorways then most people would be living in some other city instead of Auckland. We got the development we got partly because of the transport decisions that were made.

        2. If it was that simple you might be right.

          Don’t think I can bring a trolley load of groceries home on the bus or a few fence posts and a bag of cement on the train.

          A lot of people probably go to more than one destination when they go out so PT is not a practical solution.

          If it’s Christmas and I want to go up to Sylvia Park to get a couple of Christmas presents I’ll go up on the train because it’s only ten minutes walk to the station and it stops at the mall. I can also avoid the chaos of the Southern Motorway and the hassle of finding a car park.

        3. miffy, I suppose all the cities where safe cycling infrastructure is making everyone safer and healthier are just “different” from Auckland and must be disregarded? (Second question, does trolling reduce the ability to read evidence, or does ignorance create trolls?)

          Vance, Auckland’s traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels has nothing to do with edge cases about fenceposts and cement, and everything to do with weak leadership and poor decision-making. And public transport that doesn’t cater to achieving multiple tasks on a journey is not quality public transport, and is generally a result of investment decisions that are skewed towards achieving modeshift at peakhour, in order to relieve congestion for drivers, rather than towards improving the network for all users.

        4. @Miffy – False dichotomy, you can have motorways and cycleways, it isn’t a zero sum game.

          Naughty rhetorical argument!

    1. Yes, and once you start spotting the statements in which our terrible transport outcomes are “due to Covid” it’s hard to miss them.

      AT, WK and Government: Our terrible transport outcomes are due to your **response to Covid**. They are not due to Covid itself.

  2. A topic of great interest, there are instances when the community wants you to “just go with it,” especially when it comes to the obvious. In these cases, trying out different stopgap solutions is the best approach to move on.

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