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Did You Know?

Only 0.7 percent of federal transportation funds are spent on improving pedestrian facilities.

Exploring open streets during COVID-19

In response to the challenges of COVID-19, many cities around the country opted to close streets to cars or reconfigure traffic lanes to create more dedicated space for walking and biking.

While more information is needed to understand the true impact of these initiatives, many are wondering if this is a viable and safe strategy that could work for all communities in our region.

We believe streets should prioritize people over cars and have long advocated for solutions like open streets, greenways, and protected bike lanes. We are excited to see these concepts being adopted by more people and places.

It’s critical, though, that when considering open streets and lane reconfigurations that a thoughtful, local approach is taken — an approach that considers community context, needs, and priorities. Implementing these solutions rapidly and during this crisis requires additional considerations.

OPEN STREETS IN THIS MOMENT

The issue of crowded sidewalks and the demand for safe space for people biking varies greatly by neighborhood and town.

Near parks and in high-density areas, rebalancing streets could ease concerns about overcrowded sidewalks where social distancing is difficult. Tasks such as walking to the grocery store or taking a break for fresh air or exercise are a challenge in some areas.

In other places, however, crowded sidewalks are less of a concern. Many communities, especially Black and Brown communities, have higher concentrations of essential workers who don’t have the privilege of working from home.

These communities are struggling with disproportionately high COVID-19 exposure and death rates, and in many cases, financial insecurity, homelessness, hunger, and other pressing concerns. Closing streets for cycling and walking may not be the top priority in these communities.

GUIDANCE FOR LOCAL CAMPAIGNS

Creating more road space for walking and biking in your community should be a locally-driven effort and take into account the unique needs and priorities of the people living there. Whether you are from a Chicago neighborhood or a suburb, here are several questions to consider before pursuing a campaign that will help set your efforts up for success.

This resource from the Safe Routes National Partnership and Chicago United for Equity’s Racial Equity Impact Assessment helped inform these questions:

  • Is closing a street a priority right now? What need would a street or lane closure address? What other needs does your community have at this time? What should take priority and why? Have immediate transportation needs already been addressed, such as helping essential workers safely access their destinations or providing extra space around grocery stores and schools for food pick-up? Are there other ways people can safely recreate without open streets?
  • How can the full community be engaged in the decision at this time? Community engagement during the pandemic may be difficult, but engaging the people you seek to help is key before proceeding. How can you collect input from a wide array of individuals and community groups living in your neighborhood or town? How will you engage vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities and older adults who are often left out of the conversation? In addition to online engagement, are there ways to engage community members who lack internet access through flyers, the radio, phone calls, or other means?
  • How should community input inform your approach? Are community members asking for more spaces for walking and biking? Which streets should be closed? How can lower-income areas that don’t have access to sidewalks and safe outdoor spaces be prioritized? Are there any potential negative impacts? Who would benefit from a street closure and who would bear the burden? Are there alternative solutions that will result in a more equitable outcome?
  • Are there resources and bandwidth for this? Keep in mind that municipal staff, including public works professionals, may have limited capacity right now. In some communities, staff are focused solely on responding to the pandemic. For safety and liability reasons, cities may require staff to issue permits, place traffic safety equipment, and post specialty signage. Ask yourself if open streets will divert attention and resources away from those most in need.
  • Does your community have past experience shutting down streets? Planning, designing, and implementing a road closure or street reconfiguration can be complicated. The time and thoughtfulness required to do it properly may not be available during a public health emergency. Prior experience of successfully closing a street or lane to car traffic is helpful.
  • Can it be implemented safely? Can a street closure or reconfiguration be implemented with minimal person-to-person contact? Can the closure be implemented without police deployment and enforcement? Open streets should be a safe and welcoming space for all. Be mindful that police presence is not welcome in many Brown and Black communities.
  • Are there public health concerns? Elected officials may be reluctant to move forward with a street closure plan if compliance with social distancing has been a problem. No one wants to see an open streets effort encourage crowds and result in more hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
  • How will you evaluate the impacts of a street closure? Even projects with the best intentions have unintended impacts and consequences. It’s important to determine in advance how you will track your projects outcomes and shortcomings. How will stakeholder involvement continue through the closure? What measures will you use to track impacts? How will the data collected be shared with those impacted? How long should the street closure last? Should it be a temporary or long-term model? What are the implications of either?

Work with your city council ward office or your local municipal staff to answer these questions and determine if open streets (or something else) is a priority for your community. Whatever community-informed initiative is deemed viable and safe, organizing should happen locally with your alderman and local elected officials as your target.

Examples from other cities can be found in the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center’s local action resource dataset.

Our Bike Walk Every Town campaign includes resources to help you develop and implement advocacy strategies in your area. Keep in mind that any open streets initiative must be shaped by people living in closest proximity to and in most need of the proposed changes.

Get involved at the local-level or learn about our work in response to the pandemic at the city, regional, and statewide level as we fight for clean and equitable transportation for all.

 

Photo above courtesy of the AP.