Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cities, including D.C, are closing streets to make way for restaurants and pedestrians

A pedestrian walks a dog last month along Beach Road in Rock Creek Park, which has been closed to traffic so people have more room to exercise.
A pedestrian walks a dog last month along Beach Road in Rock Creek Park, which has been closed to traffic so people have more room to exercise. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The forced distancing required by the coronavirus prompted several cities to quickly close some public roads to make room so cooped-up residents eager to get outside for exercise could do so safely.

Now, following moves to shut, narrow or repurpose streets from Oakland to Tampa, cities including Washington are seeking to understand how those emergency closures might have lasting impacts on some of urban America’s most important, and contested, real estate.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Friday that the city will allow restaurants to space out their tables in public streets, in parking spaces and on sidewalks after a quick application, and will close some streets to through traffic to make walking and biking safer. D.C. lawmakers who had called for such action applauded the move and said they are still pushing legislation to create a broader network of dedicated, protected lanes for commuting by bike given disruptions to transit caused by the virus.

The pandemic “has been terrible. But there are certain byproducts that, if we take advantage of them, will let us be more of an open city, more of a city that’s usable by all sorts of people, cafes and cyclists,” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. “It’s an opportunity to stop doing things in the old polluting and unhealthful ways.”

Officials around the country say their moves to change public roadways have been met so far with broad support, though they acknowledge some early missteps, such as not giving enough emphasis to the specific needs of disadvantaged neighborhoods. Some of the newly closed streets also were underused, and closures met with objections from some businesses.

But cities have taken steps to address those concerns, including reopening some roads and closing others as they seek to get the balance right. Oakland, Calif., home to one of the earliest and most ambitious “Slow Streets” plans, has also been among the most open about early blind spots, with officials there saying humility and accountability are vital for cementing any such changes.

The coronavirus pandemic emptied America’s roadways. Now speeders have taken over.

“While the program overall continues to receive overwhelming support among survey respondents, those responding to surveys are more likely to be White, have high incomes and live in North Oakland,” a more well-off swath of the city, officials wrote in a recent summary. That’s true even as public health officials say poorer neighborhoods and “people of color are more likely to suffer harm from this pandemic,” the officials wrote.

To address that, Oakland officials earlier this month broadened their effort beyond about 20 miles of “soft closures” of neighborhood streets. Those use barriers and signs to bar through-traffic in particular areas, but they allow residents, trash trucks and delivery vans to drive in slowly.

As part of an expansion dubbed “Essential Places,” city officials unveiled barriers in less-well-off East Oakland that are intended to thwart speeding and help pedestrians walk and cross a sometimes treacherous intersection more safely, with more coming soon in other areas.

D.C. cuts speed limit to 20 mph to curb pedestrian deaths

“The program was not addressing what we would call arterials, the larger streets that carry buses and trucks,” said Ryan Russo, Oakland’s director of transportation. The city is targeting other such places, including those with high numbers of injuries and areas near essential services such as grocery stores, to add barriers and other safety measures for pedestrians. That’s on top of ongoing efforts to close dozens more miles of smaller neighborhood streets to through-traffic.

“The streets are 25 to 30 percent of any city’s land. We need to manage the public realm in a way that meets people’s needs in this moment and in the future,” Russo said.

“We’re only a couple generations removed from the nostalgia of stick ball in the streets and kids playing in streets,” he added, saying that phenomenon shifted to cul-de-sac communities in the suburbs. “There’s really no reason why cities can’t get the benefit of a more balanced management of the public right of way as well.”

Of course, that balance comes with traffic engineering, congestion and safety questions. But Russo said the evidence so far, at least in the context of dramatic reductions in travel stemming from the pandemic, is encouraging for the future. He said after the “No Through Traffic” signs and barriers went up, he watched families with children on scooters sharing the road near their homes with slow-moving recycling trucks and delivery vehicles.

“The real question was, would motorists choose to make good choices in that context, and would people feel comfortable coming into the roadbed?” Russo said.

Pools? Planes? Camps? What public health experts will — and won’t — do this summer.

“The lesson is that those things are coexisting quite well in many cases,” he said, noting “the comfort we’re seeing parents have in letting small children experience this public space with a sense of freedom.”

Communities have different priorities and a different sense of what is possible and appropriate. In Tampa, the focus has been on finding ways to help businesses affected during the pandemic.

Mayor Jane Castor (D), a former police chief, has pushed a “Lift Up Local” campaign that allows restaurants to put tables in some public streets.

“We thought of ways they would be able to increase their customer base while keeping everyone safe. The best way to do that is to move everyone outside,” Castor said.

It’s something she sees as part of the city’s future fabric, she said, though this initial experiment is about to be shaken up by the Sunshine State’s weather.

“Really, for us in Florida, the end date will be determined by Mother Nature. It’s going to get so hot, and we’re going to get afternoon rain showers that just don’t make it an enjoyable experience to be dining outside,” Castor said.

The imperatives of the pandemic have also helped local officials cut through bureaucracy and take swift actions that cross jurisdictional boundaries.

In Minneapolis, efforts to close scenic waterfront parkways to cars, expand sidewalks and shrink neighborhood roadways to promote safety has created 38 miles of protected pathways for “walking, biking and rolling,” including by people with disabilities, Robin Hutcheson, the city’s director of public works, said in an interview before the city’s recent unrest. A city official said Thursday evening the measures remain in effect.

That work was combined with similar efforts in St. Paul and two local counties, creating 6- and 10-mile regional loops protected from cars, Hutcheson said.

The measures have been varied, she said, including expanding the sidewalk for a couple of blocks “where we need it.”

“And some of it is a full closure of a parkway around a lake, and some if it is a local-only street to serve a neighborhood,” said Hutcheson, the president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “It shows people what’s possible.”

Wondering what’s safe as states start to reopen? Here’s what some public health experts say.

In the District, Bowser’s ReOpen DC advisory group earlier this month called for similar efforts, including “diversifying our streets.”

Some city roads “are built to carry cars but do not easily accommodate pedestrians or bikes, even in a non-COVID reality. There is an opportunity to identify locations where vehicular roadways could be converted to allow for widened sidewalks, coupled with bike lanes,” according to the recommendations, which cited the narrow sidewalks along Benning Road near Kingman and Heritage islands as prime candidates.

There have already been some modest coronavirus-related closures by the city and the National Park Service in the District, including along Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park; on the service road beside Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park; and in Anacostia and Fort Dupont parks.

Jeff Marootian, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the city will put up signs and barricades creating “slow streets” in communities across the city. Through traffic will be prohibited, and the speed limit will be 15 miles per hour, even below the new, citywide default speed limit of 20 miles per hour officials also announced Friday.

Marootian said officials are still determining how many miles will be covered. The first stretches of road will be disclosed next week. “We intend for this to be a robust network,” built over several months, he said.

Bowser said the plan for “streateries” will be implemented swiftly. Officials said restaurateurs’ applications to the city should take just days — and will help the District “reimagine our roadways.”