STRIDE Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Tabitha Combs (UNC Chapel Hill)

Dr. Tabitha Combs wants to understand why some cities were quicker than others to provide residents with safe spaces to conduct enriching activities such as walking and bicycling during an unprecedented global pandemic

Tabitha Combs is a research associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research activities focus on transportation and land use planning as she works to address the barriers to safe, affordable, and sustainable mobility for society.  

“Recently, that includes trying to understand how COVID-19 has affected the ways in which city leaders think about and provide spaces for non-driving uses of public rights of way,” she said.

Combs is leading a STRIDE year 6 project titled State DOT Policies Affecting Adaptive Street Use: Learning from COVID-19 Experiences.

Transportation agencies have long acknowledged a need to better accommodate walking and bicycling, yet their efforts to provide appropriate facilities are frequently thwarted or stalled by a variety of barriers.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these barriers seemed to evaporate,” Combs said. “Forced with an unprecedented crisis that drove a rapid rise in demand for safe spaces for walking, cycling, and other outdoor activities, many cities around the world found new, innovative ways to create space for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

However, in the Southeastern U.S., cities lagged in terms of both the swiftness of their responses to the pandemic, and the number of street space reallocations implemented.

“In this project, we are speaking with local and state transportation agency leaders across the U.S. to understand what enabled some cities to act quickly, and what kept others from doing the same,” Combs said. “The lessons we learn from these leaders will help us develop guidance on how city and state transportation agencies can prepare themselves to enact more timely, effective responses to disruptive events in the future.”