Changing the Built Environment: The New Normal for Public and Private Spaces?

Opening Streets to Pedestrians and Bicycles

It’s a sign of the times: A stretch of Martin Luther King Drive in Philadelphia was closed indefinitely to motorized vehicles to provide a way for residents to distance while exercising safely. New York City added protected bikeways to several areas of the city to allow essential workers another way to get to work safely. Berlin, Germany, did the same. Bogota, Columbia, closed off some streets to allow for bike and foot traffic only; other streets had one lane for bikes only, while the other lane allowed motorized vehicles. Boston, Jamaica Plain, and Watertown in Massachusetts closed down segments of three parkways to vehicles.

People jogging and riding bicycles on a stretch of the MLK Drive in Philadelphia closed to cars

Courtesy of Randy LoBasso

Cities around the country are taking measures to ensure its residents have the freedom to safely bike, walk, and run, whether it be for mental health or a way to avoid mass transportation to get to work. “Physical activity and time outside of the house are essential for humans to maintain our physical and emotional health,” says Jennifer Toole, president of Toole Design, in a webinar called Rebalancing Streets for People. “There are volumes of scientific research that tell us that being outside and experiencing nature brings a wide variety of physical and mental benefits to humans, in fact, boosting our immune system,” she says. She notes that “with many parks and trails creating conditions where the virus could spread, we need more safe space for people to walk, bike, and run using safe distancing strategies.”

According to an article in CityLab, an online publication, essential workers such as nurses, doctors, grocers, pharmacists, delivery drivers, and others are still commuting, and local governments are taking action to help that critical movement happen more easily. Says the article, “They’re striping new bike lanes, retooling traffic signals, suspending transit fares, closing some streets to vehicular traffic and taking other temporary measures.”

Many cities are concerned about the congestion on trails and sidewalks. Opening up streets and using design strategies to separate motorized vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists is vital to allowing that to happen.

“The COVID-19 crisis brings this other layer as places look to close or limit roads to motorized vehicles to improve bike, pedestrian, and micro-mobility access. Many essential workers may not have access to a private vehicle and find it difficult to access transit because it’s limited where they are,” says Jennifer Vey, senior fellow, and director of The Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings Institution.

Walkable Communities

Creating walkable communities is nothing new. “We’ve seen an incredible increase in the number of communities that are interested in becoming more walkable places,” says Kate Kraft, Ph.D., executive director of America Walks, a national organization devoted to making America a great place to walk. America Walks offers small grants to those wanting to improve walkability in their communities. Kraft notes that safety concerns are urgent right now, and “we hope to see incredible improvements in safe, active transportation. We have to have more protected bike lines and well-defined and connected sidewalks. How we allocate street space may change because of the coronavirus,” she says.

Road closed to traffic in Oakland, CA

Courtesy of Ben Kaufman

“Our infrastructure wasn’t adequate to accommodate people walking and biking, but when you couple that with a need for social distancing, the sidewalks weren’t wide enough,” says Jeremy Chrzan, LEED AP, multimodel design practice lead for Toole Design. “They’re forcing people out into the streets, and this is a growing trend that we see in pretty much every neighborhood — the streets are naturally being taken over by people without any real definition of the use of the space or protection of those users.” He notes that the obvious solution is to “change some of those lane configurations to accommodate these users, and the lowest hanging fruit of all of these are standard four-lane roads because they can be closed or changed to two-way or two-lane operations.”

How we allocate street space may change because of the coronavirus.

Liz Thorstensen, vice president, Trail Development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C., agrees. “Trail use around the country was going up an average of 200 percent. Trail managers want to mitigate overcrowding. They first started talking to each other to find out what practices they were implementing,” she says. “Not every neighborhood has a trail, and if it did, it was getting overcrowded. Philadelphia took the plunge, and it was a good pivot for the neighborhood.”

The Evolution of Street Closures

For places like Philadelphia, the change to MLK Drive may be permanent if The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia gets its way. Even after coronavirus shelter-in-place orders are lifted, it’s likely more people will work from home and continue daily exercise using the already overcrowded trails. However, “People who wanted to get some fresh air were clogging the trails along the river,” according to Randy LoBasso, policy director of the Bicycle Coalition.

“The city was accommodating and opened up the four-lane road to people, closing it to motor vehicles,” he said. Because that stretch of MLK Drive was closed to cars on weekends between April and October, the street was equipped with a gate that they could easily close. “We’ve continued to see many people use the street and the city’s trail system, so we’ve continued to advocate, with other groups, for opening up other streets in the city to allow for safer social distancing. Closing the street essentially turned a 12-foot-wide corridor (the trail next to the street) into a 60-foot-wide corridor.” And, since there are no businesses on that stretch of road, the decrease in motorized vehicles hasn’t had an impact.

The trend at the beginning was to do traffic calming in areas that surrounded a park or trail, says Thorstensen. “However, cities like Denver, Oakland, and Des Moines, went beyond those park streets, meeting people where they are in their neighborhoods.” Instead of closing streets, these cities are using traffic-calming measures, such as traffic cones and signage, allowing residents and emergency vehicles on the roads, but closing them to through traffic.

Opportunities and Challenges

Chrzan notes that the issue with a lot of road diets is that “they’re often trying to go four lanes to three lanes, and that often means some changes in the signal operations. That’s a lot of work that we don’t have time to implement in a crisis.” There are opportunities to “repurpose some parking lanes in locations where retail is no longer functioning,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that we close parking where we need it for drop-off and pick-up areas or commercial purposes, but there are some locations where that parking can be repurposed.”

People riding bicycles in a busy intersection in New York City

Courtesy NYC DOT

That’s what was done in Montreal, Canada, says Thorstensen. “For the section of road that was closed to motor vehicles, they converted a parking lane, and that created an extension of the sidewalk.” And, many cities are using supplies they have on-hand to achieve this, such as traffic cones, barrels, and flex posts.

In New York City, the challenges related to policing caused them to shut down a pilot program shortly after it was started. The pilot program temporarily closed four streets to vehicular traffic to provide more space for social distancing. These pedestrian-only corridors were in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. According to Mayor De Blasio’s office, police were stationed at the four streets to monitor closures and ensure social distancing protocols were followed. However, the program was quickly ended, citing challenges due to police staffing the car-free zones.

Having space on our streets and sidewalks will be necessary.

Chrzan warns that there are other things to consider when closing streets. “Are there existing land uses along a road that is causing queues to form?” But, he says, “it’s relatively easy to look to areas that already have regular events where they close lanes.”

The Future

Looking to the future, says Toole, “After the stay-at-home orders are lifted, there’s likely to be an extended period when this disease will still be with us, so we will gradually re-open society, but we’ll still need to maintain physical separation. People won’t be able to ride on crowded buses and subways, but will still need to get from place to place.” As such, having the space on our streets and sidewalks will be necessary.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health warned that, in the absence of vaccines or other treatments of COVID-19, social-distancing measures might be required through 2022.

“Rails-to-Trails is already thinking about the future and how we can help,” says Thorstensen. “Right now, we’re thinking about how to keep people moving to improve mental health during the stay-at-home orders. But, in the future, we’ll be working toward commuter routes to give people options if they don’t want to use public transportation,” she says.

“We have to recognize that this will eventually pass, but we don’t know when, and we don’t know how this is all going to play out,” says Chrzan. “This could likely be cyclical, and we may have to do social distancing again.” He notes that understanding what works and making adjustments so cities will be ready to implement these changes again, or make permanent, is vital.

The rebalancing efforts may be seen as beneficial beyond the current health crisis. Gwen Shaw, an engineer for Toole Design, says, “It would be good to use this crisis as an opportunity to broaden communities’ minds about the possibility of using our streets differently.”

Most agree that safe, active transportation is essential, no matter what the climate. However, social distancing doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. “We’ll start to have more protected bike lanes, well-defined sidewalks, and connected sidewalks. We must rethink where and how we allocate our street space,” says Kraft. “Traditionally, streets have been for cars, but that was not the case when streets were first put down, and I think we have to go back. They’re our largest source of public space, so I think we have to rethink how we use that public space so that it can accommodate everyone’s needs.”

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