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Memorial Drive will open to pedestrians on Sundays again

The Cambridge roadway has become a flash point in the debate over closing off streets to create more room for people to walk.

Longfellow Bridge viewed from Microsoft NERD Center on Memorial Drive in Cambridge.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Can a decades-long tradition really be called a "pilot program?”

That’s the language used by the city of Cambridge and state Department of Conservation to describe a plan to close Memorial Drive to cars each of the next two Sundays, opening up a stretch of road for pedestrians and cyclists to gallivant alongside the Charles River.

The thing is, there’s nothing experimental about this: Memorial Drive has been pedestrian-only almost every warm-weather Sunday for years, enshrined in state law in the 1980s as a car-free stretch on Sundays from April to November.

Not this year, however. The city and DCR, which owns the road, have so far kept Memorial Drive open to cars during the spring, citing fears that closing it would draw the type of large crowd we’re all supposed to avoid during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s become a major flash point in a debate over how to find more room for people in this era of social distancing: Should you block off streets to allow people to spread out, or keep them as is and not encourage people to come out and congregate?

Back in April, the Cambridge City Council voted to ask the city and state to work on opening Memorial Drive full time to pedestrians. But city administrators took the opposite approach, not only declining to pursue that idea but keeping the street closed to pedestrians, even on Sundays. Jeremy Warnick, a city spokesman, explained at the time that “closing Memorial Drive would encourage people to gather, which would conflict with" public health strategies. The state law that stipulates the Sunday closures also allows DCR to keep Memorial Drive open to cars for public safety reasons, Warnick noted.

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Now, the city and DCR are willing to give it a go, but only on Sundays, and only tentatively — the apparent basis for the “pilot program” language.

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“Following the pilot program, the city and DCR will re-evaluate the opening of Riverbend Park. The pilot program will allow the city and DCR to assess crowd capacity, compliance with social distancing practices, and the use of face coverings,” the city said in a statement.

Elsewhere, Somerville has announced an upcoming network of streets closed to most traffic, while Boston officials say they are developing a plan to dedicate more street space to pedestrians, cyclists, and restaurant tables.