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Walsh hints at a street makeover for Boston — by taking away space from cars

Business districts will need room to spread out to accommodate social distancing

A cyclist pedaled through the corner of State and Congress streets on Wednesday.
A cyclist pedaled through the corner of State and Congress streets on Wednesday.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

More commuters biking to work downtown. Pedestrians giving one another a wide berth on city sidewalks. More travel lanes dedicated exclusively to buses. Restaurant tables spilling out past the sidewalks and into the streets.

To accommodate social distancing as the economy lurches back, business districts are going to need a lot more room outside, while city planners see an opportunity to make biking, walking, and riding the bus safer before Boston’s soul-crushing traffic returns.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh is hinting at just such a makeover for parts of the city, largely by taking some street space away from car traffic and redeploying it.

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“We want to make sure we have enough space for safe distancing,” Walsh said Monday. “We want to make sure our small businesses can get the support they need, and we want to make sure everybody has safe and healthy transportation options.”

Cyclists pedaled along Summer Street near Downtown Crossing.
Cyclists pedaled along Summer Street near Downtown Crossing. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Boston’s chief of streets, Chris Osgood, said taking street space could serve several objectives: accommodating lines of people outside businesses with capacity limits, creating outdoor seating for restaurants, adding more bus-only lanes to help the MBTA improve service and cut down on crowding, and making more room for walking and cycling.

Closing some traffic lanes, Osgood noted, could also help solve another alarming issue that has emerged during the pandemic: speeding, which has resulted in crashes that are more violent and deadly.

Osgood said the city’s plan is still in development. Some locations may seem like obvious fits; Newbury Street, for example, is already closed to cars a few days a year. But at a City Council hearing Tuesday, transportation officials named a few potential strategies and locations, many of which are far from downtown.

Traffic cones could be used to block travel or parking lanes and add bike lanes on roads such as Malcolm X Boulevard or Commonwealth Avenue, or to create more space in busy commercial areas like Centre Street in Jamaica Plain and Meridian Street in East Boston. Officials said they’re also considering closing some residential streets.

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So far, officials in and around Boston have been mostly cautious about changing how streets are used. Some stretches of roads along crowded Boston parks were closed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Brookline dedicated some traffic lanes to pedestrians in busy business districts. But the region has not been nearly as aggressive as Oakland, Calif., or Denver, for example, which have closed many miles of streets to cars to allow more socially distant walking and biking.

A family of skaters took to Hanover Street in the North End.
A family of skaters took to Hanover Street in the North End.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Cambridge has actually gone in the opposite direction: not only resisting a recommendation from its City Council to close DCR-owned Memorial Drive to vehicles, but keeping it open to cars on Sundays — when it is supposed to be pedestrian-only under state law. Officials have said they’re concerned about drawing too many people to one area.

But Osgood said that as Boston returns to some semblance of normalcy, its needs will change from keeping people at home to making more space for them as they come out.

Public health "is something we can facilitate by using our streets well,” he said.

Other cities have already announced major changes for their roads, including Cincinnati and Tampa, which are turning over many key streets to restaurants.

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The restaurant industry is lobbying officials in Boston and beyond to take similar action. Outdoor seating may make customers feel more comfortable as the virus continues to circulate. Moreover, it would help businesses recoup lost revenue if they are faced with limits on indoor dining, said Frank DePasquale, the owner of eight North End restaurants, including Bricco and Mare Oyster Bar.

“The idea is basically to find alternative seating,” said DePasquale, who wants the city to close much of Hanover Street for restaurants. “A lot of restaurants in the North End have 50 to 60 seats, so you take away 50 percent of that and it’s impossible to make it. It’s just impossible to make it, especially with the [cost] of rent.”

Walsh on Monday suggested that it would be tricky to close Hanover Street because a firehouse is located there. DePasquale said it would be possible to make the street one-way to let emergency vehicles in and out while essentially expanding the sidewalks for more seating.

Cutting down on street space for cars may also be a defensive maneuver against the very traffic congestion that has confounded the Boston area for so many years. London and Milan, for example, plan to make significantly more space for biking and walking, worried that many weary transit riders may otherwise take to cars and push traffic to unsustainable levels.

The MBTA expects greatly diminished ridership for a year or longer but plans to run trains and buses more frequently to lessen crowding. That’s one reason transit officials are pushing for more bus lanes on city streets: If buses can complete their routes sooner, they can turn around and run again more frequently — essentially boosting capacity.

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But some riders won’t be returning to the T and will instead turn to other modes.

“I’m using this as an opportunity to get used to the roads around here,” said Nicole Eigbrett of Somerville, who was given an old bike by a friend near the start of the pandemic. She’s not planning to resume using the Red Line to commute to the State House, where she works as a legislative aide. “I know how crowded and uncomfortable these trains can get. And even then, knowing how frustrated and emotional people can get, if we layer the pandemic on top of that, to me that just sounds awful.”

Mark Vautour, the manager of Landry’s Bicycles in Boston, has seen a sharp uptick in bike sales. Other customers have dusted off old bikes and asked for tune-ups. Some are turning to bikes for recreation, others for commuting, and many for both. In any case, he said, the city may want to accommodate all these new riders with more protected bike lanes.

City Councilor Michelle Wu noted that some of the debates about how to best use streets were already underway prior to the pandemic, but said that easing the shutdown should accelerate the solutions.

“Transportation was a challenge long before the pandemic,” Wu said. “Now’s the time to be reallocating street space so we are putting public health, mobility, and safety first. That’s the same solution we’ll need during the pandemic and in the recovery.”

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.