News | CCNY Professor Alison Conway Considers Complete Streets in a Pandemic

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by Meghan Orr

For many, the world as they know it has come to a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have shuttered, schools have moved to remote learning, and stay at home orders are in place across the country. Millions of people have lost their jobs or been furloughed, and millions more have migrated to working from home in an effort to “flatten the curve.” Yet essential pillars of the economy such as food delivery and emergency services march on. Maintaining supply chains against the backdrop of the global pandemic has been a consistent challenge in these last few months, with demand sharply increasing on essentials such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and grocery staples, and plummeting on luxury items and other nonessentials. The public has never been more cognizant of goods distribution and the factors that must be managed to maintain consumer needs and yet efficient movement of goods and people has always been the cornerstone of the industry. MetroFreight researchers such as Alison Conway have spent years exploring innovative ways to improve delivery systems, increase sustainability, and managing the competing needs of personal and commercial transit.  




Cover image of Conway's Complete Streets Guidebook


Conway, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at City College of New York and Associate Director for New Initiatives at the University Transportation Research Center, has been at the forefront of transportation research, assessing trends in personal transit and developing recommendations for improved urban mobility in some of the most densely populated cities in the world. In 2018, she led a team in the development of the Complete Streets Considerations for Freight and Emergency Vehicle Operations guidebook, which outlines recommendations on transport system design in New York City that prioritizes both goods movement and emergency response as essential parts of a complete transportation network. The guidebook, funded by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), operates from the “complete streets” approach, which emphasizes the importance of incorporating both community and individual needs and maintaining accessibility for essential service providers such as emergency personnel, supply, delivery, and waste management. As cities across the globe navigate new stay-at-home norms, research and best practices on managing large-scale transport-reliant services such as these becomes more relevant than ever.


Conway’s past research has focused on the use of non-motorized vehicles such as bikes, trikes, and pedicabs, both for commercial goods movement and personal use. Her 2014 study on goods movement in Paris focused on the positive impact their incorporation into the supply chain system has had on reducing CO2 emissions. Many have posited that the current reduction in transport will have a positive impact on global CO2 emissions, and there have been some anecdotal reports confirming these suppositions, based on improved air quality in cities around the world. Other work has examined management of commercial vehicles in cities that are increasingly bike friendly, and the battle for curb space between these competing modes of movement. As people find themselves home more, many people are increasingly turning to biking as a safe way to exercise while social distancing. Navigation of curb space has become of paramount concern for pedestrians, especially when attempting to maintain social distancing while conducting essential business. The long-term impacts of the current policy changes on use of curb space and CO2 emissions remain unknown, but there will be key factors to examine in future years as the world slowly returns to pre-pandemic routines.  


More recently, Conway has begun two ongoing research projects looking at changes in delivery systems in New York, specifically the shift from large-scale delivery to box stores and markets, to individual and local deliveries. With the rise of online shopping not just for clothes and household items but also grocery shopping (think Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, services like Instacart for grocery delivery, etc.), goods delivery may in fact exacerbate traffic problems -there may be fewer semi-trucks and other large delivery vehicles, but an increased flight of personal delivery drivers for these local shipments. In the era of global stay-at-home orders, these challenges are likely to only continue, with more and more people opting for delivery, especially those who are infirm, elderly, or at-risk. Conway’s research seeks to better understand how these delivery modality shifts are changing the landscape of urban transport in New York, what the implications are for curb usage, and other unforeseen impacts that may inform future recommendations for complete street guidelines. With the current supply chain struggling to keep up with demand in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for comprehensive research on matters such as how to develop more resilient and flexible transit infrastructure becomes more relevant than ever, and research such as Conway’s will likely continue to be an essential resource to look to for improved goods and personal movement.