In this interview with Franziska Meinherz, she discusses the research and findings of her recently published article in Environmental Politics: ‘“The crisis justified the urgency, but now we have to go back to the rule of law”: Urban mobility governance during Covid-19’.
You have just published an article in Environmental Politics, co-authored with Livia Fritz. What is the key argument or finding you would like people to take from this article?
During Covid-19, many cities extended their cycling infrastructure through so-called pop-up cycle lanes – cycle lanes that don’t require interventions in the built urban environment and are simply painted on the streets. In our article, we asked how Covid-19 became an opportunity for this kind of intervention, and how this way of extending cycling infrastructure in a context of crisis and urgency affected and was shaped by different institutional and societal actors’ agency.
We analysed the cases of Lyon and Geneva. We found that in both cities, the pop-up cycle lanes implemented during the lockdown corresponded to rudimentary versions of plans for cycling infrastructure that already existed and were ready to be implemented. Therefore, the hypothesis formulated by transition scholars that crises can become opportunities for public entities that are already in the process of a sustainability transition seems to hold true.
Furthermore, we observed that the way in which cycling infrastructure was developed during Covid-19 constituted a breach from formal procedures: there was no ex ante consultation or evaluation. As a result, the interventions empowered societal actors who usually act from a position of opposition, notably cycling advocacy groups. Societal actors with more economic and political capital, such as car advocacy groups, largely found themselves deprived of their usual means of intervention in political processes.
Authorities affirmed that the pop-up cycle lanes had allowed them to overcome political blockades that had prevented them from implementing plans that had been democratically approved. Therefore, our findings raise the question of how far the usual procedures of consultation and evaluation risk giving overproportional power to groups with considerable economic and political capital defending interests that counteract those of the majority.
You analyse Covid-19 as a moment of urgency, what effect did you find that urgency had on cycling policy?
We found that crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic can become opportunities for environmental policies such as the extension of cycling infrastructure, but only if they happen in a context favourable for such change. If there are carefully elaborated plans ready for environmental policies, situations of urgency may allow authorities to accelerate their implementation and even to make them more ambitious. However, in the absence of such plans, it is difficult to seize disruptions caused by crises as opportunities.
For instance, the cities that we studied had shovel-ready plans for cycling infrastructure when the lockdowns were declared. They had developed these plans over the course of several years in response to social and political pressure. The lockdowns allowed authorities to implement these plans much faster.
In addition, whereas the plans were initially designed to minimally impact car infrastructure, due to the urgency, cities could only implement them by reallocating entire car lanes to cyclists. However, the cities also wanted to extend pedestrian infrastructure, but these projects ultimately failed because there were no plans when the lockdowns were declared, and the interventions aimed at pedestrians ultimately ended up creating more problems than benefits.
But we also observed that even when situations of urgency happen in a context favourable for the implementation of environmental policies, they present several challenges. The urgency meant that the infrastructure was of lower quality than regular cycling infrastructure, and intersections were difficult to address. Therefore, these interventions mainly served experienced cyclists, but weren’t really suited to attract new and inexperienced cyclists. Furthermore, due to the urgency, public servants had to deal with extremely high workloads, which meant that they had to put to the side other projects that they were working on.
Therefore, whereas crises can create opportunities for environmental policy in one domain, they may also come at a cost for such policies in another domain. Lastly, we observed that due to the urgency, cities struggled to put in place the necessary dispositions to assess and evaluate the interventions.
What sort of arguments were made for pop-up cycle lanes? Were the arguments based on human health, or did the climate or environment get discussed too?
In the cities that we studied, health wasn’t mentioned at all as an argument for cycling promotion. Instead, authorities in both cities argued that the extension of cycling infrastructure was necessary to ensure the swift economic recovery of the city after the lockdowns would be lifted. Authorities insisted that an efficient mobility system was key for a flourishing economy, and that therefore, an increase in driving had to be avoided by all means, because due to the already congested roads, such an increase would lead to the collapse of the city’s mobility system. On these grounds, the pop-up cycle lanes were described as an alternative for people who had formerly used public transport but who no longer felt safe to do so. In Lyon, authorities also explicitly stated that an increase in driving had to be avoided for environmental reasons, but in Geneva, the economic argument prevailed.
Does your research speak to debates over declaring climate emergencies? For example, does your research show whether changes made in the context of exceptionality are able to endure?
Most cities that experimented with pop-up cycle lanes during Covid-19 then integrated these interventions into the permanent cycling infrastructure. In some cases, cities improved them so that they met the general quality criteria for cycling infrastructure, whereas other cities declared them permanent without improving them. In some cities, for instance in Geneva and Munich, car drivers’ associations legally fought some of the cycle lanes implemented during Covid-19, with mixed success.
Therefore, our findings show that changes made in a context of exceptionality that are part of an overarching and well thought-through plan may indeed endure. However, interventions that are developed out of the blue, such as, for instance, the interventions for pedestrians, will most likely be removed, because they may fail to produce the expected benefits due to bad planning and implementation. Nonetheless, our findings also show that any change will be contested, and that even projects that benefit from a large support, such as the cycle lanes, will only withstand such contestations if they respond to minimal quality requirements and are coherent with existing legal and planning dispositions.
Finally, what does this article mean for future research? What questions are you answering next?
Experimental interventions have long played an important role in urban environmental policy. We need a better understanding of how experimental governance reconfigures urban governance patterns, and what this means for the democratic legitimacy of the resulting interventions. For this, we need a nuanced understanding of legitimacy that doesn’t stop at procedural configurations and instead analyses how experimental urban environmental governance in each case reconfigures power balances.
Our findings have shown that even though procedurally, the legitimacy of the pop-up cycle lanes could be challenged in court, they were supported by the large majority of the population and facilitated the implementation of democratically accepted plans for the development of cycling infrastructure. Based on such reflections and observations, we are currently analysing how different forms of legitimacy intersect in the implementation of experimental interventions in the context of urban environmental governance.
Bio: Franziska Meinherz holds a PhD in environmental sociology from EPFL (Lausanne, Switzerland) and currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the chair for innovation research at the Technical University of Munich.
Franziska’s research focusses on urban mobility practices and politics, with a particular interest in experiences of everyday mobility practices, the link between experiences of mobility and spatial configurations, and experimental approaches to urban mobility governance.