The unofficial start of summer — this year in the middle of a pandemic — is here and people who have been hunkered down in their homes for months are emerging long enough to feel the sun on their faces — well, those parts of their faces not covered by masks.
But social distancing doesn’t end where the sidewalk begins — in fact, it becomes ever more crucial. So this is the time for communities to get serious about creating more space in the great outdoors to accommodate walkers, runners, and bikers.
And getting it right at a time when traffic is down and demand for open space is high may at long last provide a road map to what our cities can and should become in the years ahead.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation kicked things off last month by closing down sections of three Boston area parkways to make more room for pedestrians and cyclists. It took until last week for DCR and Cambridge city officials to reach agreement over what had always been a fixture of the summer season, Sunday road closures along Memorial Drive. Now a “pilot program” will offer that added space along the Charles River presumably as long as fans of the Riverbend Park experience remain on their best socially distant behavior.
Somerville will have to do without its annual Fluff Festival this year, but it does get, as part of its COVID-19 coping effort, a new “Shared Streets” program. That plan, announced by Mayor Joe Curtatone, will eventually provide 7 miles of city street closures to allow pedestrians more space for outdoor activities and easier access to essential shopping and provide a safer route for cyclists.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is expected to roll out the city’s vision for how the streetscape will be used to accommodate the “new normal” right after Memorial Day. It is certain to include more room for walking and cycling along with long-awaited special bus lanes to encourage commuting that doesn’t involve a return to the kind of traffic gridlock that was a function of the city’s pre-pandemic life.
The city has already begun to seek public input around the redesign of sections of Commonwealth Avenue (between Packard’s Corner and Warren and Kelton Streets) for a possible dedicated bike lane.
Street closures that would allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating are also expected to be part of the new landscape. As outdoor fitness classes get ready to start this summer with social distancing measures, ideally the city will think about how streets might help expand Boston’s exercise offerings, too.
Meanwhile Bostonians, accustomed to taking matters into their own hands, have pretty much converted a little used bike lane along Back Bay sections of Beacon Street into shared pedestrian space.
Around the nation and around the world cities are closing down streets to vehicular traffic to make life more livable — and safer — for those trying to adapt as long as the virus has the world in its grip. Count Tampa, Denver, Oakland, Seattle, and New York City — which temporarily opened 100 miles of roads to pedestrians and cyclists — in that group.
And then there’s Paris. . . . Surely if the mayor of Paris can shut down the famed Rue du Rivoli that runs through the center of the city, making it for bikes only, along with the Boulevard Saint-Michel on the Left Bank, then nothing is impossible.
But the driving, biking, and walking public and those who govern us must also take this moment to reimagine what life could be like on the other side of this pandemic. Even those firmly bonded with their cars have to admit that sitting in rush hour traffic is no way to start or end a day.
It’s quite possible that the “new normal” will mean more people continuing to work from home — and that too creates opportunities to remake commuting patterns for those who will be going into the office, the shop, the classroom.
No, we will never be Copenhagen, where nearly half of all trips to work or school are done by bicycle, bike lanes are ubiquitous, and where admittedly the winters are a little milder. But new bike projects in Boston, Newton, and Weston are a hopeful sign that progress isn’t impossible and bike lanes that connect to public transportation can provide a new range of commuting options.
This horrid virus has handed the city and the region a boatload of lemons. Reinventing city streets would be the best recipe ever for lemonade.
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