When it comes to changing transportation and land-use planning and regulation, cities typically lumber along at a snail’s pace. But if there’s one legacy of their response to the pandemic and ensuing economic emergency, it might be the revelation that motivated cities can innovate at light speed when faced with a series of challenges like those posed by COVID-19 in early 2020.
How would they get essential hospital and grocery store workers to their jobs when transit seemed risky and at the same time providers were cutting service? During quarantine and beyond, how can cities help home-bound workers, cooped-up families and at-risk older residents who need safe spaces for walking, rolling or playing, while keeping the recommended six feet of separation? With restaurants and small retailers unable to serve customers indoors, how do cities prevent vacant Main Streets and depleted tax revenue unless they could help move business to the outdoors?
Cities have every incentive in the world to innovate and be flexible in their zoning and regulations.
“Cities have every incentive in the world to innovate and be flexible in their zoning and regulations,” said Ryan Ole Hass, president of Greater Los Angeles REALTORS® and a board member of LA County Business Federation. “If all these businesses close, one, you’ll have a massive issue of vacancy and empty streets and, two, you don’t have the revenue. Cities should be doing everything they can to prevent that.”
As summer ebbed into fall, it was becoming clear that the springtime quarantine emergency had not vanished but was evolving into a sustained demand for innovation and flexibility. The police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests brought home the degree to which our streets have not been managed for the safety and comfort of all. Wildfires in the West and intense storms in the Gulf signaled that climate change is upon us. As cities experimented with changed planning, design and regulatory practices, a new vocabulary took hold. New coinages such as “streeteries” (or streateries), “stay-healthy streets,” “café streets” and “slow streets” joined pre-existing terms that suddenly had renewed currency, such as parklets. These ideas and actions showed up in cities as diverse as Durham, N.C.; Boston; Seattle; and Houston. The National Association of City Transportation Officials cranked out a guide called “Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery” that foreshadowed a slew of planning, design and regulatory innovations.
If ever there were a test for “tactical urbanism,” this was it, said Mike Lydon, the urban designer probably most closely associated with the notion that cities should implement planning and design features first, then revise based on community feedback. “Our approach is, let’s not have endless meetings, but put something out there and try it and be prepared to listen to people about changes they would like,” said Lydon, principal at Street Plans. “We believe strongly in that method, especially in the context of a pandemic where health, public safety and survival of businesses is urgent.”
Cities Take Quick Action To Provide Safer Streets
The cities that acted earliest to create streets that allowed for pandemic — safe biking, walking and recreation — were those that had been planning and talking with residents about creating such a network.
“Some cities had a template for thinking about using streets differently,” Lydon said. “They had neighborhood greenways, slower streets where people would feel more comfortable using the street to walk or do activity. Another set had the desire to act, but no template, and they struggled out of the gate. I’d include New York, where I live, in that group.”
Across the globe, cities with pre-existing plans to radically reform their transportation networks to reduce carbon emissions are “stepping on the gas”, said Lydon. With transit use down, Paris is implementing an extensive network of bike lanes that extend to the suburbs that is expected to be made permanent. Berlin, Brussels and Milan also experimented with “pop-up” bike lanes, with many now becoming permanent.
With public transit viewed as a risk in the early days of the pandemic, Bogota, Colombia, in March, was among the earliest to adopt an emergency safe-biking network so that essential workers at hospitals, grocery stores and the like could get to their jobs. The city had a huge head start in the form of 45 years of its Ciclovía program, closing what is now 87 miles of streets every Sunday for people to use for recreation. “The city decided to implement all at once and then back out or change based on experience,” said Carlos Pardo, a Bogotá resident and senior manager for city pilots at New Urban Mobility Alliance (NUMO), a Washington, D.C nonprofit. “If they found that transit use was slowed in a corridor, they changed the bike route.” In September, the city was planning an expansion.
In the United States, Minneapolis followed Bogotá’s lead in early April, closing streets that connected their extensive network of parks and lakes, which created a network that, at the time, was second only to Bogotá itself. But it was Oakland, Calif., that garnered the most national attention that same month, announcing that it would divert car traffic to create 74 miles of “slow streets” to give people room to walk, bike and play. “In this unprecedented moment we must do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of all families across our city,” stated Mayor Libby Schaaf. “Closing roads means opening up our city.”
“They were drawing on their existing bike plan and greenways, which had had a lot of recent engagement,” Lydon said. Reactions were ecstatic in some parts of the city, but in others it was less so. “A lot of the pushback was in Black neighborhoods, where some people were upset to wake up to find barricades on their streets.”
One key to the response, said Oakland resident Ben Stone, is that “The slow streets started right after two major construction projects for a bus rapid transit line had just, finally, ended. The construction of stations and platforms along International Boulevard had created prolonged disruption. Just as things were getting back to normal, people started seeing barricades and thought, ‘Here we go again.’”
City officials held community listening sessions, offering to take away the slow streets. “But people said we’d like to have something like this, but connect us to transit, to groceries, virus-testing sites and places where we need to go,” said Lydon.
The city then created a new program of Essential Places, focusing safety installations around key sites where surrounding roadways felt dangerous. “We’re not afraid to try new things and learn from both the positive feedback and the critiques,” Mayor Schaff said in a statement.
East Oakland residents also asked how the city could make the traffic diverters and barriers more esthetic and inviting. This led Ben Stone, director of arts and culture at Smart Growth America (SGA), to wonder about how community-centered artists might help cities work with communities on more lasting improvements. With support from the Kresge Foundation, Stone and SGA created an initiative called Arts and Transportation Rapid Response, inviting cities to apply to have grant-supported artists to collaborate with on their innovations. Nearly 200 city agencies applied, with five selected in the first round. Another round will focus not just on pandemic responses but also will be informed by issues highlighted by the protests for black lives.
The applications for the program provided a glimpse into the array of issues cities want to solve, Stone said. About 13 percent were interested in open streets — designing barricades, providing activities on slow streets. Another 16 percent wanted help creating inviting outdoor environments where restaurants and small retail could thrive — café streets, shade structures, parklets. They want help with design to save Main Street business. Another 16 percent were related to trails and parks and crowd management, and a final group wanted help creating complete streets with bike lanes and walkways where cars typically dominate.
One of the winning cities was Oakland itself, where artist and youth educator Jonathan Brumfield — who is from that community — is working on creating traffic barriers that bring beauty and a sense of community to the streets. One early idea being prototyped: Planter boxes painted with images and messages suggested by and reflective of the community. “As an artist, I’m challenged to represent the cultures and the vibrant nature of our communities,” said Brumfield. “We are trying to create something that lasts well beyond after they lift the COVID-19 restraints. How can this be part of a public health model that’s bigger than a reactionary response.”
We are trying to create something that lasts well beyond after they lift the COVID-19 restraints.
And the planter boxes aren’t necessarily just for flowers, he added. “This is something the community can grow food in; we live in a huge food desert.”
Can Al Fresco Dining Save Main Street?
In the months after the post-quarantine “re-opening,” cities stretched to find ways to help their struggling restaurants stay afloat even as indoor seating was either banned or strictly limited. “I think cities themselves were almost surprised at how many obstacles they had put in place that make it hard for businesses to adapt,” said Lee Einsweiler, founding principal of Code Studio, a planning and zoning consultancy based in Austin, Texas. “Zoning ordinances can be very particular and specific about what you can and cannot do. Licensing and permitting is complex and restrictive. A lot of things are happening because cities are looking the other way, or they don’t have the person-power to enforce codes and regulations.”
Hass, the LA REALTOR®, said his regional business alliance advocated for months for LA County and the four cities — Los Angeles, Culver City, West Hollywood and his home of Santa Monica — to take action to promote outdoor dining and retail. Ultimately, LA County created an outdoor dining program that cleared restrictions to allow qualifying restaurants to operate on a public sidewalk, in an on-street parking area, in a public alley or a closed street, or in a private parking lot or other on-site outdoor space.
In Santa Monica, a nascent city program to allow some businesses to petition to convert a parking space into a “parklet”, or outdoor hangout zone, went from a little-used pilot to a critical measure to save local businesses and resurrect street life, Hass said. It was part of a suite of zoning, code and regulatory changes the city made to try to get back to business. The city put together a “Tactical Parklet Manual” to guide businesses through the streamlined permit process, make use of approved materials and spark creative use of the space.
LA County created an outdoor dining program that cleared restrictions.
Hass said the moves have been critical to keep business districts, such as the shopping area of Montana Avenue, where his office is located, maintain some kind of viability. “These businesses struggled before COVID-19. Online is crushing retailers. Of our 11 blocks and 170 businesses, roughly a dozen are nail or other salons that can’t convert to online.”
The ability to operate in pop-up tents saved many of them, he said. But with many employers in the area declining to renew office space leases, the long-term future of the customer base is murky at best, he noted. “The one concern I have is that in some cases businesses have claimed a parking space as a parklet and branded it and made it their own. If this were to become permanent, I would want it to be more shared public space,” Hass said.
New York, whose residents endured a hellish spring as the epicenter of COVID-19 havoc, was slower to clear the regulatory detritus for outdoor dining, but once it did the city unleashed an explosion of outdoor dining. As of late summer, 10,000 are operating outdoors. “Once they took away the regulatory obstacles, New York just transformed in the public realm,” said Lydon, a Brooklyn resident. “It was out of necessity because all summer we have been barred from indoor dining.”
Several miles of streets hosting some of the city’s best-loved restaurant rows have been closed Friday afternoon through Sunday. More than 20 business improvement districts applied to the city’s expedited Open Streets program, allowing them to close sections of commercial strips to traffic, with restaurants constructing “dining decks” with all manner of shading, lighting, plantings and more. Initially intended to end Labor Day weekend, the outdoor dining programs were extended through Oct. 31.
While some of the outdoor dining programs existed previously, Lydon said, “there was little uptake because of the red tape,” and businesses put up vociferous resistance for any loss of street parking.
“Now, there has been very little pushback on the loss of parking, and not the whining that we usually see over every single space. … It is astonishing that a city as old as New York, with layers and layers of process, could get as streamlined as they have.”
With Public Transit Reeling, “Micromobility” Options Grow in Importance
At the outset of the pandemic, health experts warned people away from public transit. At the same time, “social distancing” requirements meant each vehicle could carry far fewer riders, and as the pandemic wore on, transit agencies ran into revenue crises that led to even steeper service cuts. Through it all, the workers at hospitals, grocery stores and other essential services continued to need to make their way to those critical jobs.
Nowhere was that confluence of issues more in evidence than Detroit, said Pardo. In an effort to help those workers get around safely, his group NUMO last summer partnered with Detroit’s Office of Mobility Innovation and NextEnergy, a green energy nonprofit, to provide electric bikes and scooters to interested workers. The scooters and e-bikes — provided by the city’s MoGo bikeshare program — are leased at minimal rates to Detroit hospital, grocery store, pharmacy, and manufacturing employees living within six miles of their job sites. The service began in July as a four-month pilot, but could be extended, Pardo said. Similar efforts could be necessary in many other places and for a longer period of time, as transit continues to suffer from revenue and service cuts. The expanded use of micromobility options will in turn lead to a need to speed up deployment of bike lanes, slower streets and other ways for people to move without being endangered by, or interfering with, car traffic.
“Our biggest concern from an equity standpoint is how cities will meet the needs of ordinary working people,” Pardo said. “Some ideas like streeteries or slow streets — there are groups that are not getting the benefits. Some people prefer much better bus service over any of the other actions, because they have to get to work. Transit always struggled for resources, but now they are really being killed.”
While there has been encouraging news of research showing little or no association between transit trips and COVID-19 transmission, revenue crises persist and likely will for some time.
The expanded use of micromobility options will lead to deployment of bike lanes, slower streets.
A Permanent “Change” Mindset?
Pardo’s group has been part of a joint effort to catalog various post-pandemic moves and has created a database of 1,200 mobility actions around the world, and “We are trying to track to see what ended, what is continuing, and over time, what becomes permanent.”
One mobility-related action likely to last is about not moving at all: “Telework — working from home — is probably the most important intervention that will stick to the greatest degree,” Pardo said.
Other actions have already begun to show potential staying power. For example, Seattle’s mayor has said 20 miles of traffic-restricted “Stay Healthy Streets,” where families regularly can be found biking and seniors strolling, will be made a permanent feature, and in late September, the city added an ongoing expansion of the concept, called “Stay Healthy Blocks”.
As summer turns to fall and then to winter, Einsweiler expects many restaurateurs and their customers still won’t be comfortable with dining rooms at full capacity and will make efforts to enclose and make continued use of outdoor spaces. “The Danes are already dining in greenhouses,” he noted. “But these more substantial and permanent-feeling uses are likely to run up against yet another set of government strictures. There will be concerns about screening and shielding noise from neighbors, building and fire codes. Cities will have to tread carefully.”
Zoning needs to be softened, and there needs to be a reduction in the complexity of regulation.
Robert Kronovet, a real estate broker and property manager in Santa Monica, praised his city’s pandemic response but hopes it will lead to broader, more long-lasting lessons. “I think zoning needs to be softened, and there needs to be some consideration of reducing the complexity of regulation so businesses can survive, not just during COVID-19 but after.”
“Ditch the business licensing and for right now,” Einsweiler suggested. “If you’re a city, you need revenue, yes, but you need businesses to be operating more. Reduce the time and difficulty to get up and running. Entrepreneurialism will be ripe as people try to find something, anything, they can do to make a living during the economic recovery. The harms of waiving fees and processes are likely to be minimal, and the pay-offs much larger, for the next year or two.”