Why Streets Should Be Closed to Cars During COVID-19

Open Streets are essential to public health and safety during the pandemic

Photo by Scott Heins

Streets comprise a major part of available open space in our cities — in New York, it’s more than 80 percent. In normal times, making sure that streets meet the needs of the greatest number of residents is the right thing for a city to do. But the crisis brought on by COVID-19, closing streets to cars — or rather, converting them to Open Streets for people — has become a moral imperative for cities to ensure the health and safety of residents.

By now, the images of overcrowded parks and cramped sidewalks are familiar. Guidance about keeping six feet of distance between us is difficult in practice, because of the sheer limitations of space in most cities. Even as we limit ourselves to essential trips, we still need to venture out, and it only takes a few people on a narrow sidewalk to create dangerous crowding.

In the face of these challenges, some mayors have begun banning access to parks that provide critical open space, and further crowding our sidewalks. This tack will not succeed. Humans need groceries, fresh air, and space to move, and restrictions cannot transform human nature.

But COVID-19, and the crowded public spaces that have followed, gives a clear insight into the problem without how our cities were built in the first place. Our cities have been built to prioritize cars. The only remedy for this is to reallocate street space for pedestrians and cyclists. By banning cars from some public streets, cities can alleviate crowding in our limited park spaces, while also addressing the fact that park space is often inequitably allocated to begin with.

Open Streets are not revolutionary — in fact, under normal circumstances, these closures are a regular occurrence in every major city in the United States. While these temporary closures usually take the form of block parties or street fairs, they can easily be deployed for social distancing during this pandemic. And there’s no evidence that this space would be missed by vehicle drivers; car traffic has plummeted over the past three weeks as many began to work from home and non-essential businesses have shuttered. A light vehicular load plus a public health crisis that requires distancing illustrates a clear need for more space for pedestrians and less space for cars.

So, which streets are the best candidates to close to cars? Cities should take into account factors such as physical condition, precedents, and equity issues to create a shortlist. But before we get to that, a disclaimer.

Open Streets must recognize needful access

It is undeniable that some people need cars to move through a city. For the elderly and disabled, access to transportation is more important than ever. The same is true for ambulances at this moment. For these reasons, we recommend that open streets are malleable streets, where access can be granted to emergency services with the simple movement of a few barriers, and for people who need door-to-door transportation, safe passage remains.

Open Streets should be limited access or low volume

Streets with few intersections, such as parkways or other limited-access roads, usually have fewer points of entry that require personnel or barriers. Examples of such parkways include Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, DC, FDR Drive in New York City, and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

Other physical considerations to take into account include streets paved with cobblestones and streets found within the boundaries of parks that allow cars. Both types of streets are usually low-volume roads and would be especially easy to convert into Open Streets. Bus and other public transportation routes should also be considered.

Open Streets should have a precedent for closure

Cities should also consider marathon and other road race, parade, and permitted protest routes, as there are existing protocols in place to close these streets. The annual Philadelphia Marathon has historically closed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to traffic, so it was no surprise that the city recently announced that over four miles of this route would be opened to pedestrians during COVID-19.

Most cities regularly host other types of street closures; 122 municipalities in the United States host some sort of Open Streets event, typically in the summer. Summer Streets in New York City is a prime example of a street closure, similar to a marathon or parade route, which is already well researched and familiar to city leadership and residents.

Open streets should make public space equitable

Keep in mind: while known routes might be easiest to close, they don’t necessarily reflect where open space is most needed. Rather than centrally locating Open Streets, city leadership should aim to close streets where there is an existing lack of open space. The National Recreation and Park Association advocates for all city residents to have access to a park within a ten-minute walk. Locating Open Streets where that need is not yet met would be a great first step.

Other policy and demographic considerations should also be taken into account. Many cities track rates of car ownership, residents per household, or playgrounds per child by neighborhood. Because closed streets are much more usable to those with walking disabilities than sidewalks, walking disability rates should also be considered. Using all available data with an eye toward equity can help cities locate emergency open streets where they’re most needed.

Open streets require collaboration

City agencies and resources are stretched thin during COVID-19. However, Open Streets are key to ensuring public health and safety, and should not be an afterthought. Luckily, many types of organizations are poised to help. These include block and neighborhood associations, Business Improvement Districts, crossing guards, and faith-based organizations that are often well-versed with the organizing and infrastructure required in order to implement street closures. These types of partnerships can also reduce the need for police enforcement, which can help make Open Streets more inviting for all.

Academics, public health officials, and city leaders around the world agree that in normal times, safe access to outdoor exercise is important for mental and physical health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for space for these essential activities is exponential. With car traffic at all-time lows and cities desperately trying to alleviate overcrowding on their sidewalks and in their parks, there’s no time like the present to implement an Open Streets program.

Open Streets are a powerful public health tool in normal times. In these times, an Open Street could save lives.

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

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