In June 2020, the city of Austin installed temporary bicycle lanes to improve safety and address COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. Now, Austin is making those bicycle lanes permanent on Congress Avenue between Riverside Drive and 11th Street. The lanes will be protected using flexible delineator posts and parking stops. “It’s exciting to quickly transition to a permanent design that builds on the success of the temporary bike lanes this summer,” said District 9 City Council Member Kathie Tovo. “Millions of residents and visitors travel along Congress Avenue every year, and these protected bicycle lanes will provide a safe, more comfortable option for people walking and rolling along the corridor.”
Austin is not alone. Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle, and other cities are looking to make some of their closures permanent, all in the name of health and equity. Of course, the idea of planning streets that offer pedestrian pathways isn’t new. The concept of Complete Streets, which includes plans for slower traffic and accommodation of bicyclists, pedestrians, and others, has been around since 2014-15. Those ideas have been accelerated due to the need for social distancing and to provide essential workers options other than public transit.
Protected bicycle lanes will provide a safe, more comfortable option for people walking and rolling along the corridor.
In fact, in May, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released “Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery,” which features detailed strategies cities can use to redesign and adapt their streets for new uses both during the COVID-19 crisis and in the recovery. “I think there’s a completely new perspective on the sidewalk and outdoor space. There is more interest in providing bike facilities protected from traffic,” says Jennifer Toole, founder and president of Toole Design. This company specializes in planning and designing multimodal transportation systems. From full-street closures to allow for outdoor dining and social distancing, to streets closed to thru traffic, safer bicycle lanes, and expanded trails, cities from across the nation are finding that the need for these projects is of the essence.
The Need for Accessible Trails and Roads
In many areas, traffic volumes are down, and telework is up. Although, according to INRIX, a traffic analytics firm based in Kirkland, Wash., traffic is picking up as people possibly, avoid public transportation in the bigger cities. “In Silver Spring, Md., where I work and live, we have a six-lane road that does not need to be six lanes for the amount of traffic it’s carrying right now,” says Toole. “So, they’ve reduced the number of lanes, and repurposed that extra space. They took out a parking and driving lane and transformed it into a superblock of outdoor restaurant space.” She notes that the change is temporary. “They are using big orange barriers to do it, but it would be easy to make permanent with other types of materials like concrete parking stops.” However, winter weather will make a permanent change unlikely.
They took out a parking and driving lane and transformed it into a superblock of outdoor restaurant space.
Many cities are building recovery projects to expand street closings with an eye toward making some changes permanent. Now that many restaurants and businesses are open, “We needed to look at our curbside space, finding short-term pick-up parking and more outdoor dining,” says Kim Lucas, assistant director of transportation for the city of Pittsburgh. Lucas moderated a session from the Urban Land Institute called, “Confronting COVID — Making Moves: Transportation, Public Space, and Equity in the Time of Coronavirus.”
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Murial Browser and the District Department of Transportation announced several policies to re-imagine public space during the ongoing coronavirus public health emergency, including building streateries. Whole city blocks will be closed to vehicle traffic to allow for outdoor dining and table service and support retail and recreation. Also, there are plans to permanently lower the default speed limit on local roads from 25 mph to 20 as part of the Vision Zero initiative to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries.
While the streateries in D.C. are temporary, other cities are exploring permanent solutions.
City Recovery Plans
Here’s a roundup of some of the cities considering or implementing permanent solutions to support retail, restaurants, and recreation:
Pittsburgh is exploring its use of public space for both transportation and active use. “We have several initiatives; the first one had to do with providing more public space for individuals. We knew that with more people staying at home and recreation centers being closed, the potential for parks and other outdoor areas to be inundated was great, so we needed to look at our streets differently,” says Lucas. Public transportation was a particular concern. “Electric scooters are not street legal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and there were concerns about getting on crowded public buses, so we’re working on getting some guidance to find the safest and best places for scooters to be used.”
West Palm Beach, FL
Another area where streets are being upgraded due to COVID-19 is West Palm Beach. Before the pandemic, the city completed 60 percent of a $13.9-million transformation of its downtown Clematis Street. Now, COVID has altered those plans to include more outdoor restaurant seating. Improvements include more shade trees, wider sidewalks to allow for more seating, and bicycle and micro-mobility parking. The street is now curbless and devised to slow traffic. “The outcome of the project will be quality public space that contributes to people’s health, happiness and well-being,” according to Mayor Jeri Muoio.
“For the small-town perspective, Morgan Square in Downtown Spartanburg was closed to automobile traffic in May to allow outdoor dining to spill out onto Main Street,” says Toole. “Before COVID, there had been discussions of reconfiguring the Square. While nothing official has been announced, we think the city is moving toward making the closure long-term.”
In Denver, the Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of community organizations advocating for people-friendly streets in Denver, has spearheaded some assessments of how their streets can better serve the public. “Even though they started their street closures as temporary initiatives, the mayor later announced that they’re making some permanent,” says Liz Thorstensen, vice president of Trail Development for Rails to Trails.
The mayor of Seattle also announced that the Stay Healthy Streets pilot program would become permanent. The program started with 2.5 miles of closed streets to thru traffic. It expanded to 15 miles on existing Neighborhood Greenways, which already include safety enhancements such as speed humps, stop signs, and crossing improvements. Now, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been tasked with making at least 20 miles of Stay Healthy Streets permanent and including routes in more neighborhoods and accelerating the installation of new bike facilities, according to the SDOT blog. “Just like we each must adapt to a new normal in the future, so, too, must our city and how we get around,” said Sam Zimbabwe, SDOT director. “That’s why we’re rapidly investing in a network of places for people walking and biking of all ages and abilities and thinking differently about our traffic signals that make pedestrians a greater priority.”
The city of Boston is also looking to make city streets changes to provide more room for safe physical distancing for pedestrians, bike riders, small businesses, and bus riders. First announced in May, the initiative was focused on new dining areas for restaurants and a network of protected bikeways downtown and along Cummins Highway in Mattapan. The Boston Transportation Department (BTD) recently announced a plan to make those bike lanes permanent and add protected bike lanes and calm traffic on American Legion Highway in Mattapan.
“The City of Oakland is committed to advancing racial equity and we feel strongly that creative uses for public spaces, including streets, sidewalks, and other city property, is an excellent step toward meeting that goal,” says Warren Logan, policy director of mobility and inter agency relations for the city of Oakland.
The city launched Oakland Slow Streets in April in response to COVID-19. “In just six months, we have once again advanced our approach to street design and safety. Slow Streets joins our Paint the Town neighborhood murals program, Flex Streets initiative [merchant parklet and commercial street closure program], and Essential Places initiative [safe neighborhood crossings to food distribution locations and community clinics],” said Logan.
Another vital aspect of rethinking transportation, even without COVID-19, is the equity side of the equation. A research report called “Prioritizing Transportation Equity Through Complete Streets” defines transportation equity as “geographic equity and social or demographic equity. Distributing an equal amount of bike facilities in all neighborhoods would be an example of geographic equity. Providing the same public transportation facilities and scheduling frequencies for both low-income and high-income areas would be an example of social or demographic equity. However, several studies identified the presence of both geographic and social/demographic inequities in active transportation by finding that infrastructure for walking and biking is less likely in low-income communities or low-income neighborhoods within communities. The underlying goal of social or demographic equity is that all areas and people have fair access to pedestrian-oriented facilities [sidewalks, crosswalks, etc.] at the same quantity and quality.”
“A health-equity approach removes obstacles to good health, such as poverty, discrimination, racism. Thereby, it removes the consequences of those obstacles — including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education, and reliable transportation,” says Keshia Pollack Porter, Ph.D. Porter is the associate dean for faculty and professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Designing streets for our aging population and those with disabilities can help those most vulnerable.
According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “The pedestrian fatality rate for Latinos is over 60 percent higher than the rate for whites, and the rate for African Americans is almost 75 percent higher than for whites. Low-income communities are also disproportionately affected by unsafe streets. In counties where more than 20 percent of households have incomes below the federal poverty line, the pedestrian fatality rate is over 80 percent higher than the national average.” Also, designing streets for our aging population and those with disabilities can help those most vulnerable.
Since many “people of color are less likely to own cars than whites, it’s not surprising that on average, they walk for more trips, are four times more likely than whites to commute by transit, and place more importance on street design features that support multimodal travel,” according to the National Complete Streets Coalition. People of color also took up bicycling at a faster rate than white Americans from 2000 to 2009. Low-income Americans are more likely to take transit than their middle-income peers and more likely to bike for transportation, and low-income children in urban areas are more likely to walk or bike to school. Transportation policy that treats facilities for these users as an optional extra perpetuates the inequalities and ignores major segments of the country’s population. These issues persist and are heightened during the recovery from COVID-19.
Chicago Equity Issues
In Chicago, many essential workers are residents of Black and Latino communities; are reliant on public transportation; and have been hardest hit by the pandemic, according to an article by John Greenfield on the StreetsBlog. “As with many other critical public systems, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the underlying inequities in Chicago’s transportation network,” wrote Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) spokesperson Kyle Whitehead. “Decades of structural racism and disinvestment have meant that the Black and Latino communities were already struggling with inadequate transportation options before the pandemic. Then, as COVID-19 hit, these Chicago communities faced even fewer transportation options.”
One of the primary criticisms has been cities acting without community input, especially community input from communities of color that often feel chronically unheard and ignored in the planning process. City leaders, usually unintentionally, create solutions for some but not all. In Chicago, the ATA completed a community listening tour. It spoke with more than 100 community organization leaders and elected officials to learn about the most significant transportation challenges facing residents.
Annya Pintak agrees. As the transportation equity program manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), she works on economic inclusion, community engagement practices, and racial equity. “Our equity workgroup is rooted in the idea of centering community,” she says. “We have a group of 10 paid community members; all of them have personal and professional identities with black, indigenous, and people of color.” They defined eight equity topics to focus on, including transit access, safety, mobility and transportation options, and the intersection between public health and transport. “There are four or five strategies that have been recommended by the group, and I will bring those to the SDOT to discuss implementation plans.”
Kiana Parker is a member of the SDOT community group. “My primary focus is to represent the needs of people with mobility challenges, so I focus on safety and sharing spaces. Equitable trail usage is of particular interest because, since COVID-19 started, I have found it extremely difficult to access trails and parks safely,” says Parker.
COVID-19 brought transportation inequities to the forefront, teaching planners and transportation specialists that changes are necessary.
COVID-19 brought transportation inequities to the forefront, teaching planners and transportation specialists that changes are necessary. Also, these projects have highlighted how government officials must be agile and flexible. “Many cities were quick to react by closing streets and expanding bike lanes, allowing essential and frontline workers in urban areas options aside from public transportation,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow with The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “These adjustments were quick because they were temporary. However, government agencies realize that they can get things done quicker than they thought.”
Economic opportunity for retail and restaurants, safe access to trails, and bike/pedestrian paths for frontline and essential workers and those seeking to improve their health are considerable drivers in opening up streets and developing creative solutions.