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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Clear skies all the way


Much like a cloud has a silver lining, a crisis can have an upside. With travel restrictions in place across the globe, pollution levels have decreased dramatically. Take Beijing, for example. The Chinese capital is infamous for the toxic smog that usually cloaks the city. However, nowadays, blue skies can clearly be seen as production in Beijing’s smoke-spewing factories has ground to a halt.

Normally the planet’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide emissions in China fell by a quarter in mid-February. Scientists have also discovered declines in levels of nitrogen dioxide and other particulate matter in major cities across the country. “In terms of a shift or a change that really happened overnight, this has been unprecedentedly dramatic,” Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told The picture in China shows how quickly the sky can clear when air pollutants are dispersed. According to Myllyvirta, by the end of March, with economic activity returning to usual levels, pollution levels in China were back to where they usually are.

In some British cities, including London, data from roadside monitoring sites has revealed reductions in key pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles known as PM2.5, which comes from road transport, industry and fuel burning. Professor James Lee from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) said, “These are the two air pollutants that have the biggest health impacts on people. From our analysis, pollution levels are clearly lower than the average of the previous five years. I would expect them to drop even further over the coming weeks.”

Meanwhile, satellite images observed by the European Space Agency show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide across major cities across the EU, including Paris, Madrid and Rome. Similar effects are being recorded in other pollution-choked metropolises such as Los Angeles and New York. The challenge will be: can the clear skies be permanent. As National Geographic reports, people who have become resigned to their polluted environments may begin to demand cleaner air in their cities. Simon Birkett, founder and director of advocacy group Clean Air in London, said residents may begin to think that, “Actually, I really do quite enjoy clean air: Do you think we could get it, or keep it?”

That challenge may not be as difficult as might be first imagined. Indeed, the clearer skies could remain, even with a return to ‘normal’, though what that may look like is anything but clear! The shutdown has already accelerated remote working technologies and practices and many businesses are already rethinking operations, and some may very well seek to offset losses by cutting office real estate. And if it translates to better work productivity, the result may be long-term.

Joanne Orlando, a researcher at Western Sydney University specialising in online learning and digital distractions, said we have “reached a fork in the road”. The viability of having a remote workforce — which was still happy and productive — would become more obvious to businesses after the lockdown. “I think businesses will be able to see there’s quite a bit of money to be saved by not having to pay for office space,” she said. “This shove into working from home, I think it might actually allow more flexible working arrangements.”

While not every industry could easily transition into remote work — particularly retail — Professor Orlando argues “office space industries” such as finance were primed to make the transition. “Anything where normally people come to work and they work on their computers and then they go home, there's not a lot of direct contact with clients,” she added.

This change would reduce the numbers of people commuting. Apart from clearer skies, it might also mean demand for more local recreation, including greater emphasis on cycling and walking, particularly as people spend more time in their local neighbourhoods.

Julian Bolleter, co-director of the Australian Urban Design Research Centre, said he expected a sustained cultural shift towards working from home even after the pandemic passes. He believes it would take years for the public to become comfortable with public transport again.

“I don't think this will do public transport any favours,” he said. “Even if the fear is not rational, if there is still a perception of the risk that lingers after this — which I can only imagine it will — that's not good news. I think this works against public transport, people being confined in buses and railway carriages where people cough on you. It might help to fuel some of those alternative private transport modes, like electric bikes, electric scooters, skateboards, cycling — I think all that is going to grow.”

ABOVE New Delhi: then (October 17, 2019) and after (April 8, 2020)

And speaking of cycling . . . is it the new toilet paper?

First it was toilet paper, hand sanitiser, then tinned tomatoes. Now the must-have item people are buying in droves are bicycles. “We’re the new toilet paper,” said Grant Kaplan, the manager of a bike store in Sydney, “and everyone wants a piece.” Speaking to Guardian Australia, Kaplan added: “We can’t keep up with sales. Literally, the phone is ringing nonstop.” The store would normally expect to sell AU$10,000-worth of bikes any given Saturday. Nowadays, sales are quadruple that.

A bike store in Melbourne reports a similar upswing in sales. The reason? “Families are sick of walking everywhere as their form of exercise,” said Nathan Ziino of bikeNOW. “On your bike you are exercising and practicing social distancing.” It seems the trend for two wheels isn’t confined to Australia. Susan Boxmeyer is the owner of The Bike Shop in Palm City, Florida. According to her: “It's been crazier than Christmas.” Meanwhile, a major bike brand in the UK is also seeing a dramatic increase in sales — so much so its staff are struggling to keep up with demand.

Simon MacMichael of hopes that, once life gets back to normal, people will stay on their saddles and not ditch their bikes. “Whether in Australia, the US or the UK, we hope that recent converts to cycling, or those who have returned to it, keep the habit once the global crisis passes. And whilst we haven’t heard any tales of people emerging from shops with a couple of bikes under each arm, hopefully they’ll also discover that bicycles are as essential a part of daily life as, well, toilet paper is.”

Milan to slash car use after lockdown

Milan is to introduce one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus. The northern Italian city and surrounding Lombardy region are among Europe’s most polluted, and have also been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak. Under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. City officials hope to fend off a resurgence in car use as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport.

The city has announced that 35kms of streets will be transformed over the northern summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The plan includes low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened footpaths, 30kph speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets. Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, said: “We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops. We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation. We have to get ready; that’s why it’s so important to . . . support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it is over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category.”

Milan is a small, dense city, 15km from end to end with 1.4 million inhabitants, 55% of whom use public transport to get to work. The average commute is less than 4km, making a switch from cars to active modes of travel potentially possible for many residents.

In the UK, Brighton started opening part of the seafront, Madeira Drive, only to pedestrians and cyclists from 8am-8pm. In Barnes, London, businesses and residents have coned off part of the road outside shops to expand pedestrian space and help shoppers keep their distance from each other.

ABOVE All quiet in Milan save for a bicycle or two

PHOTO Stefano De Grandis/REX

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