The study, by the traffic analytics firm Inrix, looked at five cities: Washington, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and Oakland, Calif. It found that in general, traffic volumes on the restricted streets — whether pedestrian, bike or car — remained well below pre-pandemic levels, a finding that is not surprising considering that overall traffic is down as well. As traffic volumes began to increase amid states reopening, so did activity levels on the restricted streets, Inrix found.
However, traffic varied based on the designated use of the roadways. In dense cities such as New York and Washington, for example, activity on the “slow streets” or “safe streets” was underwhelming, with usage lagging behind overall city travel.
Cities that created larger and well-connected networks of slow streets, geared toward recreation, such as in Minneapolis, saw higher numbers of people using the facilities, Inrix found.
Protected bike lanes built for commuting in New York didn’t attract as many commuters because fewer people were commuting, while there are indications of activity picking up in the open-street restaurants and even more on the recreation-focused streets, said Bob Pishue, an Inrix transportation analyst.
“What we found is that the goal matters. Is it to increase social distancing, or increase walking and biking, or to reduce car use?” Pishue said.
Inrix collects data anonymously via GPS probes on roads, vehicle navigation systems and other devices. For this study, the firm analyzed trillions of location-based data points in the five cities to understand how a variety of coronavirus safe-street programs affected mobility trends.
For example, in the nation’s capital, use of the restricted streets was at roughly 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels; in Manhattan, it was 43 percent.
By eliminating and restricting parking and through traffic, cities may be discouraging people from frequenting restaurant districts and other city attractions, the report said.
“How is this going to work going into the winter months with streateries and stuff like that? I think that is still kind of a question,” Pishue said.
The firm’s analysis provides quantitative metrics on the use of the open streets, though it doesn’t draw any conclusions on the success of the programs. Even though activity on the slow streets remains well below pre-pandemic levels, researchers say it is possible that the areas saw an increase in use by pedestrians and bicyclists.
“If cars aren’t using that street, that will bring down the overall trip number. So even if you see an uptick in walking and biking, that may be swamped by the decrease in cars,” Pishue said.
Through location-based data, researchers were able to evaluate the popularity of the slow streets compared with the rest of the city. Pishue said using such data could help guide cities in monitoring and understanding the impact of the programs as they consider expanding or making them permanent.
The “Open Streets” movement has been embraced by cities around the world in recent years. The programs have various names — open streets, slow streets, safe streets and more — and vary from city to city, but they all have the same goal: restricting vehicle traffic to reduce pollution and promote healthier lifestyles.
The pandemic accelerated the trend, attributed to the need to provide people a place for physical activity while social distancing. Some cities implemented policies to encourage walking, biking and scooter use in neighborhoods and city centers. Some turned busy parkways where commuter traffic had largely disappeared into safe havens for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The District, which embraced slow streets and street restaurant seating amid the health crisis, had the lowest utilization of any of the five cities included in the study, but use was on par with low activity citywide.
The District began putting up signs and barricades to create slow streets during the summer. The concept grew amid pressure from advocates and residents for more road space to exercise and for recreation while social distancing.
So far, the District has a network of 22 miles of slow streets where through traffic is prohibited and the speed limit is 15 mph, even below the new citywide default speed limit of 20 mph. City transportation officials said they are working to add three more miles this fall and keep them permanently.
Other coronavirus-related road closures by the city and the National Park Service include portions of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park. Anecdotal evidence suggests the area has been widely popular, supporting the Inrix analysis that indicates recreational routes have been the most in demand.
In Seattle and Minneapolis, long stretches of road designated for recreational use have attracted residents who live outside those communities, the study found. Activity on Seattle’s restricted streets was at 82 percent in August compared with pre-pandemic levels and at 75 percent in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis, where officials designated at least 16 miles of road for walking and biking as part of the city’s “Stay Healthy Streets” initiative, saw the largest increase in activity among the five cities studied, with usage of the restricted roads in July a third higher than pre-pandemic. The city ended the program last month, however, saying it was evaluating how it performed as the response to the novel coronavirus evolves in the state.
In Oakland, home to one of the earliest and most ambitious slow-streets plans, Inrix’s analysis found that activity along the designated roadways varied significantly by income. Activity was higher on those streets with the highest share of low-income households, while low activity was observed on streets with a greater share of high-income visitors.
While cities such as Oakland and Seattle saw significantly more activity in the restricted areas than New York and Washington, travel lagged overall city activity significantly, according to the report.
The use of restricted streets in New York also lagged behind that in other cities, the data shows. That could be partly due to the city’s strict social distancing and travel restrictions from the onset of the pandemic, which affected travel activity, according to the report.
The low use of the specially designated streets in New York is weighted heavily on the general lack of activity in Manhattan — where most of the restricted streets are located — due to the shutdown, the report said.
More people used the spaces that were completely closed to traffic than those streets partially taken for restaurant use, for example. Full-block programs saw higher levels of activity and had far higher levels of activity than protected bike lane streets, Inrix found.
“Designs geared toward commuting in Manhattan . . . seemed to attract fewer people and cyclists than those geared toward recreation,” according to the report.
While the reduction in traffic volumes overall during the pandemic allowed cities to implement these policies with minimal opposition, Inrix said, this may change as traffic volumes return. Traffic in the Washington region is at just over 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Inrix. Nationwide, traffic is at about 90 percent of what would normally be expected at this time of year.
The Inrix analysis found that drivers are largely obeying through-traffic restrictions. That could change when normal traffic volumes return.
“As freeway and arterial streets become more and more congested, drivers will try to find other routes,” Pishue said. “When people are sitting in traffic congestion for a long time, they start questioning whether these programs are good or whether they should be able to cut through a street.”