During the pandemic, many neighborhoods that were once bounded by streets designed primarily for cars became permeable and open. With the spread of open, slow, or shared streets, pedestrians and cyclists quickly took over traffic lanes, creating an expanded, often safer public realm. Vehicular traffic into downtowns and town centers also saw a dramatic decline, which made wider streets and boulevards and expansive parking lots ripe for transformation into safe spaces for exercise and socially-distanced community events.
Now that the coronavirus is ebbing, at least in many parts of the U.S., communities are wrestling with the legacy of their open streets initiatives. Should some streets remain pedestrian and bicyclist-first spaces? Should temporary changes to slow or ban cars be made permanent? How can landscape architects and planners sort through the options?
In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Lian Farhi, senior transportation planner with Sam Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York, said when reevaluating new shared spaces and deciding whether to make them permanent, communities should first ask: “what is their added value?”
Communities need a “decision-making framework, with overall goals and objectives,” she said. Temporary street closures, pop-up parklets, painted sidewalks and bike lanes, and other new shared outdoor dining and recreational spaces should be evaluated in terms of “usage, safety, accessibility, equity, diversity, mobility, and maintenance requirements.”
The city government of New York City, which opened up 60 miles of streets in five boroughs to pedestrian and bicycle use during the height of the pandemic, is now looking again at some of their temporary open streets.
Irene Figueroa-Ortiz, senior project manager with NYC’s department of transportation, said of all their pilot open streets, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, was the most successful. “26 continuous blocks were closed to cars and immediately taken over by people.” Parts of the avenue in front of schools became expanded playgrounds and used as educational spaces. Figueroa-Ortiz said “there’s now broad public support for this new public space. The community wants to make it permanent.”
To determine whether to keep 34th Avenue open, the city needs to measure impact. Her department has undertaken an extensive multi-cultural community engagement process in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse communities in the country, with surveys, webinars, and design workshops, supported by real-time translation in numerous languages.
The department of transportation received more than 2,000 responses to their requests for input, whereas before they would expect around 100 responses. The feedback is helping to map out safety concerns, determine community members’ satisfaction, and re-imagine traffic lights and flow to enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Figueroa-Ortiz said that survey results also show that open streets in New York City “weren’t successful in underserved communities, because of higher crime rates and the fact that essential workers were too busy to take advantage of the spaces. But overall, only a handful of shared streets in NYC were deemed unsuccessful.”
Steven Bossler, a landscape architect and planner who founded Shift Planning and Design in Denver, Colorado, said putting together packages of small federal, state, and local recovery grants has been critical to making temporary COVID-19 park and streetscape improvement projects come together — and more financing will be needed to make them permanent.
Olde Town Arvada, a community in Colorado, found the funds to reimagine their streets as public spaces free of cars. Restaurants and stores lining the street saw a 200 percent increase in foot traffic, which was matched by a 200 percent increase in sales tax receipts. Now coming out of the worst of the pandemic, “80 percent of residents say the open street should continue.”
But in Paonia, Colorado, which used $46,000 in state grants matched with $8,000 in local funds to undertake temporary tactical urbanism projects, the results were less positive. Projects included vibrant painted crosswalks, bump-out parklets, and bike lanes. “Residents liked the greenery and colorful sidewalks, but didn’t like that parking was removed for the new bike lanes,” Bossler said. (The survey results are worth a read).
Jenny Baker, a land use consultant with Clarion Associates in Denver, Colorado, said communities can better leverage their zoning code to make long-term changes now that the coronoavirus is being contained by greater numbers of vaccinated people. “Codes can be used, for example, to enable outdoor seating. Parking requirements can also be revisited.”
Baker said much still needs to be figured out to make these new open streets permanent. “Where do the intersections begin and end? If there are now different visual cues at intersections, how do people navigate safely? Are shared streets legally the right-of-way or park space? Do the agencies managing these spaces need to change? Some of these things are a little difficult to answer.”
Just as temporary COVID-19 solutions were largely driven by local needs, long-term changes will be as well. But, hopefully, greater flexibility and experimentation are here to stay.