The forced distancing required by the coronavirus prompted several cities to quickly close some public roads to make room so cooped-up residents anxious to get outside for exercise could do so safely.
Now, following moves to shut, narrow, or repurpose streets from Oakland to Tampa, cities including Washington, D.C., are seeking to understand how those emergency closures might have lasting impacts on some of urban America’s most important, and contested, real estate.
D.C. lawmakers are drafting legislation to make it easier for shutdown-battered restaurants to space out their tables by putting them on public roads, parking spaces, and sidewalks at least for months, and to give neighborhoods a way to close streets to traffic to make walking and biking safer.
The pandemic ‘‘has been terrible. But there are certain byproducts that, if we take advantage of them, will let us be more of an open city, more of a city that’s usable by all sorts of people, cafes and cyclists,’’ D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh said. ‘‘It’s an opportunity to stop doing things in the old polluting and unhealthful ways.’’
Officials around the country say their moves to change public roadways have been met so far with broad support, though they acknowledge some early missteps, such as not giving enough emphasis to the specific needs of disadvantaged neighborhoods. Some of the newly closed streets also were underused or met with objections from some businesses.
But cities have taken steps to address those concerns, including reopening some roads and closing others as they seek to get the balance right. Oakland, Calif., home to one of the earliest and most ambitious ‘‘Slow Streets’’ plans, has also been among the most open about early blind spots, with officials there saying humility and accountability are vital for cementing any such changes.
‘‘While the program overall continues to receive overwhelming support among survey respondents, those responding to surveys are more likely to be White, have high incomes and live in North Oakland,’’ a more well-off swath of the city, officials wrote in a recent summary. That’s true even as public health officials say poorer neighborhoods and ‘‘people of color are more likely to suffer harm from this pandemic,’’ the officials wrote.
To address that, Oakland officials on Friday broadened their effort beyond about 20 miles of ‘‘soft closures’’ of neighborhood streets. Those use barriers and signs to bar through-traffic in particular areas, but they allow residents, trash trucks and delivery vans to drive in slowly.
On Friday, as part of an expansion dubbed ‘‘Essential Places,’’ city officials unveiled barriers in less-well-off East Oakland that are intended to thwart speeding and help pedestrians walk and cross a sometimes-treacherous intersection more safely, with more coming soon in other areas.
‘‘The program was not addressing what we would call arterials, the larger streets that carry buses and trucks,’’ said Ryan Russo, Oakland’s director of transportation. The city is targeting other such places, including those with high numbers of injuries and areas near essential services such as grocery stores, to add barriers and other safety measures for pedestrians. That’s on top of ongoing efforts to close dozens more miles of smaller neighborhood streets to through-traffic.
‘‘The streets are 25 to 30 percent of any city’s land. We need to manage the public realm in a way that meets people’s needs in this moment and in the future,’’ Russo said.
‘‘We’re only a couple generations removed from the nostalgia of stick ball in the streets and kids playing in streets,’’ he added, saying that phenomenon shifted to cul-de-sac communities in the suburbs. ‘‘There’s really no reason why cities can’t get the benefit of a more balanced management of the public right of way as well.’’
Of course, that balance comes with traffic engineering, congestion, and safety questions. But Russo said the evidence so far, at least in the context of dramatic reductions in travel because of the coronavirus, is encouraging for the future. He said after the ‘‘No Through Traffic’’ signs and barriers went up, he watched families with children on scooters sharing the road near their homes with slow-moving recycling trucks and delivery vehicles.
Communities have different priorities and a different sense of what is possible and appropriate. In Tampa, the focus has been on finding ways to help businesses affected during the pandemic.
Mayor Jane Castor, a former police chief, has pushed a ‘‘Lift Up Local’’ campaign that allows restaurants to put tables in some public streets.
‘‘We thought of ways they would be able to increase their customer base while keeping everyone safe. The best way to do that is to move everyone outside,’’ Castor said.
It’s something she sees as part of the city’s future fabric, she said, though this initial experiment is about to be shaken up by the Sunshine State’s weather.
‘‘Really, for us in Florida, the end date will be determined by Mother Nature. It’s going to get so hot, and we’re going to get afternoon rain showers that just don’t make it an enjoyable experience to be dining outside,’’ Castor said.
The imperatives of the pandemic have also helped local officials cut through bureaucracy and take swift actions that cross jurisdictional boundaries.
In Minneapolis, work to close scenic waterfront parkways to cars, expand sidewalks, and shrink neighborhood roadways to promote safety has created 38 miles of protected pathways for ‘‘walking, biking and rolling,’’ including by people with disabilities, according to Robin Hutcheson, the city’s director of public works.
That work was combined with similar efforts in St. Paul and two area counties, creating a 10-mile regional loop protected from cars, Hutcheson said.
The measures have been varied, she said, including expanding the sidewalk for a couple of blocks ‘‘where we need it.’’
‘‘And some of it is a full closure of a parkway around a lake, and some if it is a local-only street to serve a neighborhood,’’ said Hutcheson, the president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. ‘‘It shows people what’s possible.’’