Many readers will have noticed that there is a pronounced reduction in car traffic these days. The decrease seems actually to be an international phenomenon. With fewer cars, streets around the world are safer, quieter, less polluted, and less a fountain of greenhouse gases. If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis, this lessening of the overall harm that cars cause is a big part of it.
Partly because there are fewer cars on the roads, cities all over are accelerating programs to make their streets safe and convenient for people who are not in cars. They are helping local businesses in the process. In the U.S. the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has immediately come out with guidelines for ways in which cities can respond in this way. Here are some examples of what cities are doing.
Some cities are extending and even doubling their networks of bike lanes (Lima, Berlin, New York City, and Milan, just to name a few). In normal times, it costs an American an average of two-and-a-half working months every year to keep up with car costs. With all the current economic dislocation, lots of families are going to have to phase out of their car dependency either a little or a lot. They will be looking to get around by other means. Bikes – and a safe, complete bicycle network – are part of the solution. An additional aspect: As NACTO recommends, bike shops need to be classified as essential services.
Some cities are creating play streets (e.g. Seattle). The people on a city block get together and ask the city to close their street to through traffic. It can be just once, or once a week, or whatever can be worked out. The streets remain open for residents to drive on and for deliveries, of course. And there would have to be strict protocols about how closely adults and children could congregate on a play street. In the meantime, the kids have more space to play and the neighbors get to meet one another – and learn how they can support one another.
And sometimes it’s adults who are playing.
I have heard that Bellingham is working up a play-streets plan based on neighborhoods. Since play streets and some of the other initiatives that cities are trying can be done block by block, let’s hope that the Bellingham plan – when announced – is flexible enough to be based on blocks as well as neighborhoods.
Some cities are letting restaurants spread their tables farther onto the sidewalk and sometimes into the street, perhaps occupying space that previously needed to be used for parking. The tables are separated using social distancing standards. Since this is all out-of-doors, the bad bugs tend to disperse immediately if any should appear. Bellingham actually has a program for this sort of thing, but it hasn’t been used very much up to now.
For pedestrians, cities are expanding walking zones onto the drive lanes in areas where there are essential services or a high volume of people on foot or where queues form.
There being so many fewer cars on the streets, some drivers have thought it would be cool to turn the streets into a raceway. Cities have responded by changing the timing on traffic signals – an easy adjustment – to slow things to a reasonable rate. The use of the drive lanes for other purposes – as described above – might help with this, too.
If you look at the satellite image of any city, you see that between 25 and 40 percent of the city’s terrain are streets. If you add in parking lots, we’re in the 50-60 percent range. That’s largely public space that has been turned over to cars for the last hundred years or so – with all the public expense and threat to physical safety and the environment that that entails.
We have an opportunity to turn the corner. Let’s use it.