Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who on Saturday announced the closure of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park and roads in two other parks, has opposed opening additional roads to residents, citing concerns people would have “festivals” in them.
“A stay-at-home order remains in effect,” Bowser tweeted Saturday along with her announcements about the street closures. “DC residents should only leave home for essential activities.”
The city’s response appears to be slow compared with other cities that have been building temporary bike lanes and closing roads to create open spaces during the coronavirus emergency. In those places, officials said they want residents who are stuck at home to have plenty of space to exercise in their communities while practicing the recommended social distancing.
Last month, New York closed four streets to traffic to give people more walking space. Denver has closed several streets in neighborhoods across the city and is considering adding more, citing efforts to provide safer spaces for people who want to exercise during the stay-at-home order.
In Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) announced last week that the city is dedicating 74 miles, or about 10 percent of its streets, for use by pedestrians and cyclists.
“Because of the reduction in car traffic, we will be closing off a number of streets so that bicyclists and pedestrians can spread out and exercise and take in fresh air safely on Oakland streets, free of cars,” Schaaf said during a virtual town hall Thursday.
Cities around the world have created temporary bikeways. The Colombian capital of Bogotá has opened more than 50 miles of temporary bike lanes, while various German cities have used removable tape to mark pop-up bike lanes.
Back in the nation’s capital, residents frustrated by the lack of “open streets” in their neighborhoods are taking matters into their own hands. Orange cones and other obstacles are being used across the city to close roads or lanes of traffic to nonresident traffic. "Pandemic protected sidewalks” have popped up in at least nine locations across the District.
Robb Dooling, an avid cyclist and advocate for more open spaces for those on two wheels or on foot, said residents are widening pedestrian paths on streets that have narrow sidewalks and are getting little use from cars during the pandemic. Traffic is down significantly in the region due to the stay-at-home orders that have been issued in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“The idea is to give pedestrians more space to stay six feet away from each other,” Dooling said.
Neighborhood activists and supporters are using the hashtag #WidenDCSidewalks and urging more neighborhoods to join the movement to close their roads.
Along with the orange cones, neighbors are placing signs telling residents to “Please stay 6 ft away from each other! Together we can beat Covid-19.”
Advocates say the city could even expand sidewalks in major corridors like it does in the Georgetown area on busy summer days. The Georgetown Business Improvement District puts barricades on the outermost lanes of M Street NW to provide more pedestrian space. Cars are still able to travel in the corridor.
The District Department of Transportation did not respond to questions about the inquiries for more open spaces and road lane closures, nor did it say anything about the legality of the “pandemic protected sidewalks.”
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) earlier this month urged DDOT to identify streets that could be closed on a full- or part-time basis “so that District residents can safely walk, run, bike, stroll, and scooter in our public space.”
Allen said closing Beach Drive and the other two “destination” parkways is a good start. But he said more is needed to provide safe outings in neighborhoods where people are being forced to walk in the street because the sidewalks are too crowded.
Allen said city officials have told him they are considering using barricades to expand the pedestrian access in commercial districts, near grocery stores and pharmacies and other essential businesses that are seeing a lot of foot traffic.
“For me the next step is to look at some of the residential streets,” Allen said, and open them so people can walk and bike outside.
Allen said residents have few options for keeping active while maintaining the recommended six feet from others. The city closed parks and playgrounds to discourage groups from congregating.
“We are seeing our sidewalks and bicycle lanes and trails crowded to the point that residents are forced into the street to comply with the Social Distancing Requirement,” Allen said in an April 2 letter to DDOT Director Jeff Marootian. “We should simply go ahead and close some of those streets so that residents can safely and responsibly leave their homes for short periods.”
“I don’t want to send the message to people to go out and have a festival,” Bowser said April 3 on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU public radio. She reiterated her concerns at an April 6 news conference.
“I think if we shut down a street, you will be asking me why are so many people on the street,” Bowser said.
Beach Drive, along with roads in Anacostia and Fort Dupont parks, will be closed to vehicle traffic through the end of the month, the city said.
Beach Drive is already closed to vehicular traffic on the weekends. Some parking areas may temporarily close as needed to minimize congestion, and officials with U.S. Park Police and the National Park Service will monitor the roads and enforce social distancing rules.
Anacostia Park and Fort Davis Drive in Fort Dupont Park will be closed to car traffic from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Elsewhere in the region, Montgomery County has reserved parkways for exclusive use by walkers and bikers on weekends. Beginning this weekend, residents will have access to portions of Little Falls Parkway in Bethesda and portions of Beach Drive in Kensington.
Earlier this month, Montgomery Parks opened about 2.6 miles of Sligo Creek Parkway for exercise on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Those portions include the 1.1-mile stretch from Old Carroll Avenue to Piney Branch Road and the 1.5 miles from Forest Glen Road to University Boulevard West.