Cities close streets to cars, opening space to social distancing
With roads cleared of traffic because of the coronavirus pandemic, some cities across the US have repurposed streets into car-free zones, giving pedestrians and cyclists extra room to spread out and practice social distancing.
This is an idea that can certainly be replicated elsewhere too, especially in India that is now looking at another two weeks of a national lockdown beginning Wednesday.
Cities including Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland, California, have closed streets to through motor traffic. Others are extending sidewalks to make more space for pedestrians looking to stay at least six feet apart. And some municipalities are considering adopting similar measures.
Samuel I. Schwartz, a consultant and former New York City traffic commissioner known as Gridlock Sam for his traffic-curbing efforts, supports the idea of car-free zones in the city.
“There is no more important resource in New York City and in all the dense cities after people than space,” he said on Saturday. “And cities are now dedicating 30 to 40% of their land areas to cars. This could be a welcomed reclamation movement.”
Traffic at New York City’s busiest bridges and tunnels has fallen nearly 60%. The city recently experimented with a short-lived pilot program that converted parts of four major thoroughfares to pedestrians for social distancing. Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that he might revisit the program, which drew criticism from advocates of alternative transportation for not going far enough.
In Oakland, some 74 miles of roadway, about 10% of the city’s streets, will eventually be closed to through motor traffic as part of a new program called Oakland Slow Streets that started on Saturday.
“This is an effort to give Oaklanders space to spread out to engage in outdoor recreation in a socially distant manner,” Mayor Libby Schaaf announced on Twitter on Friday.
The program began by closing four street segments to through traffic (local traffic and emergency vehicles were still permitted).
“We want Oaklanders to have space and give our parks a break,” she added, asking that residents wear a mask if they head outside.
An advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists in Berkeley, California, has also started a petition calling for a similar car-free program that would temporarily repurpose the city’s bike boulevards.
On Saturday, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation closed three segments of parkways in the greater Boston area to vehicles, leaving them open to pedestrians and cyclists only.
The department said that the measures, which are currently in place for this weekend only, “will promote social distancing to aid in the prevention of spreading Covid-19.” The department said it would evaluate the effectiveness of the closures after the weekend.
In the Boston suburb of Brookline, the town’s Select Board and Transportation Board last week approved the extension of sidewalks along four major thoroughfares to enable social distancing for cyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users and scooter riders. The modifications repurpose parking lanes, opening them up for pedestrians by limiting motor traffic.
Jonathan Berk, a proponent of new urbanism, applauded the efforts in Boston and beyond and said they allow residents to see their cities in a new light.
“I’m hoping that as we continue over the next few weeks and months to allocate more now-empty streets to people, it will show people the benefits of a less auto-centric urban environment,” he said in an email. “Showing urban residents what’s possible when you have this ‘blank canvas’ of street space to utilize for walking, biking, running, playing games with neighbors and just enjoying as a new, public neighborhood open space.”