As we move into our third month of social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are looking for ways to get out of the house and enjoy the fresh air while still ensuring their own safety and the safety of others.
In the most densely populated areas across the country, some people can actually struggle to social distance in their own neighborhoods due to increased foot and bike traffic. Sidewalks are typically designed to accommodate two or three people across at most — hardly enough room to adequately social distance.
In order to avoid exposure to other people, residents in some cities and towns are seeking more space by moving into the streets to run, walk, and bike while maintaining at least a six foot distance.
The coronavirus pandemic and national shutdown has brought a renewed focused on the open streets movement. On May 4, the Massachusetts Department of Transit reported on the official MassDot blog that “the rate of fatalities on Massachusetts roadways doubled in April: with 50 percent less traffic recorded on major highways, 28 individuals died in crashes, compared with the month of April 2019 where there were 27 deaths on roadways in the state.”
In the blog post, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver described it as a “dangerous trend” and reminded residents that throughout the coronavirus pandemic, “everyone in the Commonwealth has sacrificed and used disciplined actions to keep themselves, their loved ones, and our community safe. We ask that all residents use this same dedication to safety and reduce their speeds when driving.”
Executive director for WalkBoston Stacey Beuttel was also quoted, saying that “with the stay-at-home advisory still in place, everyone should expect to see more neighbors walking, rolling, or running in the street as they try to maintain six feet of physical distance on narrow sidewalks. If you are driving, be prepared to yield to people walking and drive slowly. Empty streets are not a license to drive faster.”
Governor Charlie Baker also tweeted that “even with significantly lower volume on the roads, drivers still need to exercise caution, wear a seatbelt and observe the hands-free law.”
The notion of closing streets to cars and opening them to people is not new. According to advocacy group The Open Streets Project, “Open Streets are programs that temporarily open streets to people by closing them to cars” with the goal of improving “the quality of life for people by bringing citizens together to enhance mobility and public space so that together we can create more vibrant, healthy, and equitable communities.”
Nearby, the City of Cambridge puts this principle into action every year, closing Memorial Drive on Sundays from April to November, and has become very popular with walkers, runners, cyclists, roller-bladers, and families.
With pedestrians and cyclists taking over the streets, Massachusetts isn’t alone in the struggle to find more space and accommodate the growing need. Cities across the country are taking action to create safer roads for people trying to enjoy the outdoors and exercise while gyms remain closed and access to open space is limited.
At the beginning of the month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s Open Streets program would block off 100 miles of streets to cars in order to dedicate more space to pedestrians for physical distancing (New York City is one of the areas hardest hit by coronavirus).
Officials in San Francisco, Denver, and Charlotte have implemented similar programs, and cities like Boston and Chicago have begun to investigate streets that may be viable. The open streets plan doesn’t just benefit pedestrians; more places are closing streets to cars to allow reopened restaurants to provide far-spaced outdoor seating in roadways to keep customers in the open air and away from each other to stop the spread of the virus while still serving them.
It remains to be seen whether open streets are here to stay, but as long as the coronavirus is a part of our lives — and it’s beginning to look like that will be a very long time — social distancing will be, too. Increasing open space by closing streets to cars could provide a safe way to move about urban communities without promoting the spread of coronavirus.