The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cities are making covid-era street changes permanent. Some are facing pushback.

The D.C. Council has appealed to the National Park Service to keep cars off a scenic stretch of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park

People enjoy a stretch of Beach Drive, which was closed to weekday car traffic in April. Many cities that shut streets during the pandemic are looking at how to keep some of the changes in place. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Paris barred most cars from the majestic road that goes past the Louvre Museum, then months later announced it would keep it that way. New York followed suit, making permanent a program that clears space on public roads for walking, biking and, in the case of 34th Avenue in Queens, Mexican folk dance classes.

In San Francisco, officials are weighing whether to keep part of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park closed to cars, prompting a tussle among drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and a fine arts museum that lost easy public access to its facilities.

Leaders in other cities are pushing to do the same, seeing an opportunity to cement progress in making streets safer, more enjoyable and less polluting. The moves have also roiled long-running debates about the role of the automobile and the purpose of public streets.

In Washington, the D.C. Council in June appealed to the National Park Service to keep cars off a scenic stretch of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, a move also supported by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). But one initial supporter of the idea, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), tapped the brakes after opposition emerged, showing the complexities of limiting car travel, even in a city where local and federal officials have sought to emphasize other modes of transportation.

President Biden is pushing an infrastructure overhaul that prioritizes climate change, pedestrian safety and equity. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is advocating for “complete streets” designed for more than cars. And Norton, as chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on highways and transit, has championed a major transportation bill that seeks to curtail the primacy of the automobile.

But when it comes to the idea of permanently ejecting cars from a creek-side stretch of road in her district — which she requested from the National Park Service in a letter last month — Norton was surprised by the pushback.

“I must have been wrong … The community appears much more divided than I thought,” Norton said in an interview. She planned a public meeting on June 29 to hear from residents ahead of a second session on July 8 organized by the Park Service.

Acting with unusual swiftness, hundreds of cities changed the ways their roads were used early in the pandemic, often using paint, plastic posts, temporary barriers or signs asking for compliance. Some adjustments were popular, creating what supporters saw as urban oases. Others provoked drivers’ ire.

D.C. sees largest drop in traffic congestion among large U.S. cities, report says

Efforts to make pop-up infrastructure permanent offer a preview of bigger battles to come amid changing priorities in Washington, with safety and environmental advocates saying cities must become more nimble and responsive to community concerns if they are to tackle climate change or reduce the death toll on U.S. roads, which topped 38,000 last year.

“The nature of the emergency was that things happened fast. But the nature of democracy is that the things that last are the things that people talk over and agree to,” said Philippe Crist, adviser on innovation and foresight at the Paris-based International Transport Forum.

‘Cities are taking a moment’

Transportation chiefs, including Buttigieg, from 63 countries jointly called in May for seizing on a surge in walking and biking during the pandemic to accelerate a move toward more "accessible and resilient” transportation infrastructure. Milan; Brussels; Rome; Bogota, Colombia; and Lima, Peru, are among the cities making much of their pop-up pedestrian and cycling changes permanent, the group said.

In the United States, the National Association of City Transportation Officials tracked the trend and offered grants to cities that repurposed streets in neighborhoods hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.

Detroit temporarily closed streets near schools for community groups to create outdoor learning spaces and provide child care. Philadelphia worked with restaurant owners in communities of color who were underrepresented in the city’s pandemic-era program to convert streets to dining spaces.

“Our streets are physical manifestations of our policy and funding choices,” said Zabe Bent, the transportation association group’s design director. “Cities are taking a moment to say: ‘Where are we now? What are the needs now?’”

Some cities, including Philadelphia, plan to continue their programs at least through this year, Bent said. Kevin Lessard, a Philadelphia city spokesman, said officials are working with businesses and residents to determine what to roll back while also considering “a permanent program that can be implemented in a safe, responsible and equitable way.”

Others are working on similar efforts to repurpose streets.

In San Francisco, officials created a five-step process to gauge which “slow streets” that restricted cars during the pandemic are worth keeping. It includes multilingual outreach and design improvements before the installation of more durable traffic barriers.

Transportation officials in Pittsburgh, where brutal winters can upset plans for outdoor dining and recreation, are looking to keep several closures at least seasonally, said Karina Ricks, director of the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

“We remain focused on small business recovery, safety, climate and job creation, and these street adaptations are vital contributors to that,” Ricks said in an email.

A new law in New York requires city transportation officials to operate an “open streets” program that gives space to pedestrians, bike riders and others for up to 24 hours a day.

A community group in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens has been honing a popular closure along 34th Avenue, installing tennis balls under traffic barriers, so they don’t annoy neighbors when dragged into place each morning. Discord has bubbled up, with an objector in Brooklyn hurling barricades into a nearby creek. City transportation officials have been pushing further changes, and they recently began replacing a traffic lane on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge with a two-way, protected bike lane.

In Paris, the pandemic broadened the ambition of changes that had started along Rue de Rivoli, a major east-west thoroughfare that runs past the Louvre Museum to the square that once held the Bastille prison. The city had set aside one traffic lane for bikes in 2018, then last year created a multilane boulevard for cycling. Space is reserved for buses, taxis, residents and deliveries.

The move, part of a broad expansion of bike lanes during the pandemic, has proved popular with many Parisians, but less so for some on the outskirts of the city who drive in, said Crist, who lives in France and grew up in Tennessee.

“Cities bear the marks of past pandemics,” Crist said, pointing to green spaces laid out in London over the course of successive plagues. “We are starting to realize our allocation of space had maybe gone too far one way,” toward the automobile, he said.

Weighing the future of Beach Drive

A push to permanently shift the balance away from commuters on a stretch of road through Rock Creek Park in D.C. shows the cleavages that can open around such efforts.

On weekdays, people jog with their dogs, bike and roll strollers down the middle of curved, car-free traffic lanes, including over the historical Boulder Bridge, which was fitted with large stones in 1902 to blend with a picturesque part of the park, which drew repeated visits by President Theodore Roosevelt.

For some, it has provided relief. Sherry Marts rides her bike on the closed stretch to offices downtown from her home in the Shepherd Park neighborhood. “Being able to ride without having to play dodge-car is such a delight,” she said.

Priyanka Banerjee-Guenette used the space to build back her strength, balance and confidence after brain surgery last year, she said, and loves “the wind on my face.”

But some neighbors say they fear longer commutes and rerouted traffic.

Frances Burke, one of thousands of people who signed dueling petitions over the proposed permanent closure, argued that the number of cars zooming past “will skyrocket,” worsening existing speeding problems through her Hawthorne neighborhood. “I have four children and do not want their lives risked every time they walk out the front door,” she wrote.

Some neighbors said installing speed bumps or other measures to control traffic could help address concerns. Others want more information and deliberation.

“We don’t know what the post-pandemic world looks like,” said Naima Jefferson, who leads the citizens’ association in Shepherd Park. “There’s not any kind of research or studies of how this would impact travel.”

Signatures are running about 5 to 1 in favor of keeping the weekday closure along Beach Drive, which goes from Broad Branch Road NW north to the Maryland border. Vehicles previously were barred only on weekends and holidays. Nearly three miles of Beach Drive are car-free, separated by areas for drivers to cross or reach picnic areas.

The Park Service will keep the stretch of road closed at least into the fall as it considers environmental effects and public sentiment while weighing whether to lock in existing closures, undo them or find something in between. It said the closed section saw between 5,500 and 8,000 cars each weekday before the pandemic — a fraction of traffic on the main commuter thoroughfare through the park, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, which averaged about 50,000 cars.

D.C. sees largest drop in traffic congestion among large U.S. cities, report says

In originally asking the Park Service to close the section of road, Norton wrote that the pandemic clarified “our values as a community,” showing the health benefits of time spent outside. That remains the case, Norton said, as does the need to “double down” on addressing climate change. But although the pandemic-era move toward telework will decrease people’s reliance on cars, many must still drive to work. Their concerns deserve to be heard, Norton said.

“Some of these issues will be worked out in time,” Norton said. “It’s going to evolve.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose district includes some of the communities beside the national parkland, said she has seen no evidence of added safety risks in neighborhoods stemming from the closure, a move she supports.

“Covid, as bad as it was, has allowed us to reimagine a lot of things,” Cheh said. “One of the things is how we use public space.”

Not everything has worked.

D.C. closed more than 20 miles of neighborhood streets to most traffic during the pandemic to encourage walking and biking, but it ended the program in May after mixed reviews. City officials said drivers ignored signs that kept streets open only to residents who live nearby, making it unsafe for pedestrians.

Bowser, in a new budget proposal, is seeking $9 million to “reclaim streets for public use” by creating “open streets” events in each ward, as well as monthly closures on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and elsewhere.

Cheh said those fleeting measures could give people a taste of what’s possible. The city eventually could consider closing or redesigning parts of Pennsylvania headed toward Georgetown, creating a lively and walkable boulevard protected from cars, she said.

But the pandemic added a “major complication” to such ambitions for now, Cheh said, hollowing out office buildings and undercutting the downtown economy.

“It’s kind of dead over here,” she said. “We’ll have to see how this plays out.”