SALT LAKE CITY — When Lisa Orman asks children to imagine their ideal streets, something is missing in the drawings they produce. There’s hardly ever a car.
Instead, at Orman’s presentations on livability and public space, children draw people walking, riding bikes and pushing strollers; sometimes there are ziplines connecting buildings, or swimming pools. “They don’t think of streets being a place you get from point A to point B, but a place we can all joyfully inhabit,” said Orman, a New York City resident who is an advocate for open streets, a concept that has gained traction in the U.S. during the pandemic.
From Massachusetts to Washington state, some cities have temporarily closed roads to traffic, allowing residents more room for fresh air and recreation while maintaining the suggested 6 feet of social distancing. They include Salt Lake City, where on April 23, 10 streets were closed to all but local traffic as part of a program called “Stay Safe, Stay Active.”
With the country slowly reopening, however, the open streets present a dilemma: Now what?
Proponents want the restrictions to be permanent, and some cities have already agreed, including Seattle, where 20 miles of roads are now restricted to local residents, first responders and deliveries permanently.
Open roads advocates in New York City are even more ambitious. “We’re 40 miles in on what we hope will be 100 miles of open streets,” Orman said.
Proponents say too much city space is devoted to cars and parking, too little to parks and other spaces for active recreation. Discouraging vehicles — through road closures and expensive parking — benefits communities by creating opportunities for social connection and exercise, they say.
Not everyone agrees. “This is wrong on every level,” wrote one person responding to Salt Lake City’s survey on its “Stay Safe, Stay Active Streets” initiative, which began in April.
“Government’s role is not social engineering,” wrote another. Others worry that street closures are detrimental to seniors with mobility problems and that it will redirect too much traffic to other streets.
But it appears that an established trend in Europe called “pedestrianizing” is finally taking hold in the U.S. Here’s why, and how one determined neighborhood took control of its streets.
Connection, nature and beauty
The borough of Queens is close to the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City. There, on the last week of March, the city closed a major thoroughfare, 34th Avenue, to all but local traffic during the day in order to give cooped-up residents more space to get outside while maintaining social distancing.
But within two weeks, the street was reopened because of the expense of using police officers to monitor incoming and outgoing traffic.
As told in a video called Miracle on 34th Avenue, local residents objected and organized a street rally on April 28. They also came up with a plan to have neighborhood volunteers take charge of putting up barriers and signs when the road closed to outside traffic at 8 a.m. and reopened at 8 p.m. They took responsibility for monitoring the activity on the street and picking up trash. City officials approved the plan, and the road became open for recreational use again on May 13.
The video shows a wide range of people enjoying the street, which is car-free except for residents’ cars parked along the side of the road. There’s a senior pushing an elderly person in a wheelchair, children rollerblading, musicians performing, even an exercise class going on in the middle of the road. Residents have purchased and planted flowers in the medians; children draw pictures with chalk in the road.
It looks much like a “Streetopia,” the name of the organization that Orman directs in her neighborhood, New York’s Upper West Side. And it seems strange that a global pandemic enabled it. But proponents of open streets seized a moment to accelerate a movement that had been under way for years.
Orman said many people who have traveled to Europe have encountered streets used for outside dining and recreation since this practice is established in cities such as Barcelona and Rome.
“COVID, while wreaking havoc on our economy and public health system, and disproportionately affecting our black and brown neighbors, has created this opportunity for people who haven’t seen what we’ve seen all along, which is that streets can be used for multiple purposes,” she said.
“Streets should reflect the values that we share as a community. For us, those values center around connection, nature, beauty, equity and safe transportation.”
A new norm?
It’s been more than two months since Salt Lake City launched its “Stay Safe, Stay Active” street closures in order to provide more recreational space for residents who were spending much of their time at home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Unlike the Queens initiative, the affected roads in Salt Lake City are closed to outside traffic 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. City transportation director Jon Larsen said Friday that the city is now working to determine if all the streets are being used for recreation as intended and if they should remain open further into the future.
As in New York, Salt Lake City officials have found that maintaining temporary closures can be labor intensive. “One of the challenges has been with temporary barricades. They get run over, and people move them in ways to make it so you can’t drive down the street at all. They require a lot of babysitting, a considerable amount of staff time,” Larsen said. But, like on 34th Avenue, some neighborhoods have “adopted” the barricades and signs and taken responsibility for making sure they’re up and in the right place.
Before the program was launched, the city conducted a survey, which drew more than 6,000 responses, making it the most popular survey the city has conducted, Larsen said.
While most of the responses were positive, some criticized the plan for causing more disruption in a nation already struggling with the uncertainty and trauma of the ongoing pandemic, and for benefiting a limited number of people. “Limiting traffic is not a good idea; the idea should be to get traffic where it needs to go in the least amount of time, therefore reducing pollution,” one respondent said.
A coming ‘Carmegeddon’?
The push to open more pavement to people gained momentum with research showing that more than half of publicly owned property in major cities is consumed by vehicle movement and parking, said Petra Hurtado, an urban planner and research director for the American Planning Association. The pandemic and the demands of physical distancing further exposed the lack of recreation-friendly space, she said.
One way that cities can cut down on traffic is by making parking expensive or lowering speed limits, as Los Angeles has done through designated “slow streets” during the pandemic in order to make the roads safer for pedestrians.
Such efforts can discourage people from driving altogether if adequate public transportation is available. That said, some city officials have warned of a coming “Carmegeddon,” an influx of cars as people resume going to work in offices but shun public transportation out of fear of contracting COVID-19, Hurtado said.
New York City, for example, is reopening in stages, but the New York Stock Exchange asked brokers and visitors not to use public transportation.
It’s unclear if Carmegeddon will materialize; public transportation use has been light as New York reopens, but many people are still working from home, a trend that may continue after the pandemic ends.
Hurtado and other open-streets proponents believe that trend will continue, too. “There seems to have been a cultural shift, overnight almost, in people acknowledging the importance of public space in their neighborhoods. And as it turns out, there’s not a lot of public spaces in neighborhoods,” Hurtado said.
Seattle recently announced that the pandemic-related closure of roads for recreation will be permanent. Only residents going to and from their homes will be allowed on 20 miles of streets, along with delivery drivers, sanitation workers and first responders, CNN reported.
Other cities are seeking to “pedestrianize” streets for a short period of time, but long-term, as in Park City, where business owners on historic Main Street have proposed closing the road to traffic on Sundays in summer and fall.
In Salt Lake City, officials are noncommittal \when asked if any closures might be made permanent, unlike the survey respondent who wrote, “How long will it last? Forever would be ideal.”
But Larsen did have an answer for open-streets critics who say that roads are made for cars. “Streets have been around for thousands of years. Cars, for only about a hundred,” he said.