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Reclaiming streets from cars: towards a fairer road space distribution in Latin America

By Giovanni Vecchio, Ignacio Tiznado-Aitken, and Rodrigo Mora

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Just Transport series. Transport is fundamental to our existence – including access to key sources of livelihood, ranging from work to healthcare to educational institutions to childcare to stores. Yet, the right to accessible, safe and affordable transport – as a public good – is continuously denied on the basis of ability, race, gender, sexuality and class. With this in mind, authors have highlighted initiatives, strategies or actions that aim to secure more just forms of transit.

Figure 1. Examples of emergency interventions: upper left, redistribution of the road space for a new temporary cycleway in Mexico City; upper right, partial street closure with traffic calming and a new space for pedestrians in Rancagua; middle left, new permanent cycleway in Salta; middle right, transformation of one road lane into a cycleway in Bogotá. Redistribution of road space in Porto Alegre, reducing parking spaces to realise a cycleway (sources: Gobierno de la Ciudad de México; Ilustre Municipalidad de Rancagua; Jimena Pérez Marchetta; Instituto Distrital de Recreación y Deporte; Prefeitura de Porto Alegre)

Troubling times, when well managed, can underscore long-standing socially unequitable and environmentally unsustainable problems and prompt the development of new kinds of solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has created the opportunity for a fairer allocation of road space – one that considers all modes of transport – showing that a more sustainable approach to mobility is possible. The need for physical distancing in public spaces helped to shift the focus of planning from traffic to people, changing the allocation of resources and road use. Many cities around the world, for example, started promoting temporary transformations of streets, redistributing road space to create emergency cycleways and expanding sidewalks to allow the movement of people and grant physical distance between people. These initiatives were not restricted to the exclusively rich and “well governed” European or North American cities but also instituted in less affluent Latin American cities with less formalized planning practices, lacking technical experience, resources, and sometimes public acceptance. What are the lessons to be learnt for cities of the painful experience of the COVID pandemic? Can Latin American cities employ this traumatic experience to mitigate their deep-rooted inequality and car-centric urban planning?

The major disruption posed by COVID-19 has reconfigured sustainable and fairer mobility initiatives in Latin American cities. Cities such as Bogotá (Colombia), Mexico City (Mexico), Porto Alegre (Brazil), Rancagua (Chile), and Salta (Argentina) have been active in implementing such measures and had well-known leaders in charge of these initiatives. Interviews conducted by the authors in June 2020 to key decision-makers in each city revealed that the pandemic fostered faster adoption of sustainable mobility measures such as emergency cycleways, street pedestrianization, bus lanes, and other traffic calming initiatives (Figure 1).

These transformations show two important changes in comparison to pre-pandemic interventions. The first refers to an advance in terms of equity. The COVID-related interventions explicitly promote a redistribution of road space, usually dominated by car-based mobility, benefitting users typically overlooked when planning mobility, such as pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport users, who are often socially disadvantaged compared to car users. In doing so, these actions provided more affordable mobility alternatives for essential workers, low-income people and car-less households usually neglected by traditional planning approaches. In two webinars, organized by Chile’s CEDEUS - Center for Sustainable Urban Development, the five cities presented their initiatives during the pandemic (in July 2020) and one year after (in June 2021). For example, authorities of Mexico city implemented an emergency bike lane in one of the city's most important and longest road, Insurgentes st., while in Bogota a series of less extended but more dense bike lanes were constructed in 2020 in order to facilitate the movement of people.

The second change involves decision-making processes among planners. Cities facing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic reported different degrees of public involvement in defining actions to be taken. When public involvement was promoted, as in Bogotá, Mexico City and Salta, it consisted primarily of regular meetings of advocacy groups with city authorities during the lockdown period in order to decide the type of action to be implemented and determining which streets and public spaces to target. In other cases like Rancagua, however, civic involvement was non-existent (mainly for sanitary reasons related to the pandemic), as it was considered that the community had already expressed support for the transformation of streets and public spaces in the city that started in previous years. This raises important challenges on participatory planning and procedural justice (i.e., how decision-making is done in practice) and how to ensure that people’s desires and needs are considered in the mobility interventions taken.

The COVID pandemic showed that also Global South cities such as the mentioned Latin American examples can engage in rapid, transformative interventions for fairer mobility. However, the discussed emergency interventions have a limited reach for addressing structural inequalities. Latin American cities require deep transformations to overcome long-ingrained urban segregation and underfunding, fostering more balanced urban structures that facilitate the availability of opportunities and the interaction between social groups. However, in the short term, redistributive policies are required to achieve just transport, facilitating the sustainable movement of disadvantaged people and enhancing accessibility to relevant urban opportunities.

Giovanni Vecchio is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Urban and Territorial Studies, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and researcher in the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development (Cedeus). He holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning, Design and Policy from the Politecnico di Milano. His research focuses on the social implications of urban and transport planning, focusing on vulnerable groups and territories, socio-spatial inequalities and urban policy.

Ignacio Tiznado-Aitken is Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Coordinator at Suburban Mobilities Cluster, Department of Human Geography at University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). During 2018-2019 he was a postgraduate researcher at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds. During 2020-2021, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CEDEUS). His research interests encompass qualitative and quantitative methods to address transport justice issues. His work focuses on sustainable transport, public transport, equity, gender, accessibility, and affordability. More info at

Rodrigo Mora is a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, Universidad de Chile, and researcher at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CEDEUS). He holds a MSC and PhD at University College London (United Kingdom). His research interests include sustainable mobility, urban planning and housing.




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