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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities are joining the trend to provide more space for pedestrians. The current health crisis has shed light on the way we use public spaces and some cities have extensive pedestrian areas in order to facilitate social distancing and avoid contagion. Some roads have also been closed to traffic, but previously there was no scientific method to help authorities make such decisions.

A research team from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the University of California at Berkeley in the United States has developed such a method. Having measured how the space is distributed between roads and sidewalks in 10 cities on three continents using, for the first time, automated technology, scientists have devised a methodology to determine the measures to be taken to ensure a greater distance between pedestrians.

“If you do not take any action in the cities, it is not possible to have a pedestrian system which allows social distancing ”, explained Daniel Rhoads, Albert Solé, professor at the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, and Javier Borge-Holthoefer, members of the CoSIN3 research group at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) of the ” UOC and co-authors of the study published in the scientific journal Communications physics.

The cities studied were Denver, Montreal, Washington DC, Boston and New York in North America; Buenos Aires and Bogotá in South America; and in Europe, Brussels, Barcelona and Parisian.

“Our methodology shows that, with a well-planned strategy, the effort required to improve the pavement system in a city can be shared, while still allowing traffic to flow, ”the researchers said. an algorithm that the team developed, the cost of maintaining this road network can be shared between pedestrians and motorists.

According to Borge-Holthoefer, leader of the CoSIN3 group, european cities are more successful in achieving this balance, thanks to their arrangement, while it is most difficult to achieve in American cities.

The difference between Barcelona and New York

Researchers use the term open streets, which, as Borge-Holthoefer put it, “has become widely used in the English-speaking media to refer, above all, to closing streets to traffic and free them for pedestrians and non-motorized traffic, such as cyclists and skaters “.

To measure the space dedicated to pedestrians and traffic, the researchers used data from the public geographic information system (GIS) generally hosted on city ​​authorities open data portals.

The ten cities were chosen taking into account the availability of these data, by selecting the cities on different continents to allow comparisons. The study shows that urban planning, in most cases, leaves little space for pedestrians to walk. “Public space is distributed in a way that is ‘unfair’ or ‘arrogant’, as our study shows,” said Borge-Holthoefer.

By comparing European, North American and South American cities, the researchers found that the fairest cities are in Europe. Cities that leave the least space for pedestrians are in the United States, while cities in South America fall between the two extremes.

In Barcelona, ​​for example, sidewalks take up almost half of the available public space, while in Barcelona New York, the figure is only 28%. In general, city centers offer more space for pedestrians and this decreases in favor of vehicles to the outskirts.

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All data and code for this study is fully accessible, as Communications physics is an open access publication.

The study was made possible in part thanks to the general traffic management project n ° SPIP2017-02263 and the transfer of traffic data for Barcelona by the company TC Group Solutions.

This research supports the objective of sustainable development (SDGs) 11, Sustainable cities and communities.


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