By Jonathon Weber, Livable Streets Program Manager
One impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been a drastic drop in motor vehicle traffic in our communities. Step out to a normally busy road in your town, and you’ll probably notice it. At the same time that there are fewer cars, many more people are out biking and walking. There are so many people at times, that there isn’t enough room on the sidewalk for them to abide by physical distancing, which is forcing people to walk in the road.
The combination of fewer cars and more people in the road creates a dangerous situation. When traffic volumes decrease, speeds tend to increase. And when there are people on parts of the roadway where drivers don’t expect them to be, there’s an increased risk for crashes.
People need to go outside and exercise to reduce stress and improve both mental and physical health outcomes during this time. To support these public health benefits, and their residents, some forward-thinking communities are rebalancing their streets to create more room for people to walk and bike.
Here are some ideas and resources for rebalancing streets in your community during the coronavirus pandemic. This guide is intended primarily for town administrators, but is also useful for residents who want to encourage their towns to implement these changes:
On mainly residential streets, cities and towns can help protect residents who are outside by putting up “Local Traffic Only” or “Residential Traffic Only” signage that discourages non-residents from using the street as a cut through. This type of signage, especially if placed in the middle of the road, will help limit and slow traffic considerably.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bidgee
Some parks have roads running through them that are dedicated to car traffic. Park managers should consider shutting down park roads to motorists to create more space for those same motorists to use once they leave their cars. Just be sure to maintain access to parking, since not everyone will walk or bike to the park.
Keep Your Distance
In high-traffic recreation areas, it’s a good idea to provide a highly visible physical representation of 6 feet to help folks get a spatial sense of how much distance they need to keep between themselves and others. This could be done with chalk, a piece of lumber, ski poles, a bicycle (most adult bikes are about 6 feet long) or various other materials—get creative! Complement physical representations with signage for reinforcement.
Institute Institutional Spaces
Does your town have a college or other type of large campus that’s currently not being used? Get in touch with the administrators to see if they’re willing to allow the campus’ streets and outdoor spaces to be used as a community park during the pandemic. If they give you the go-ahead, promote this space to your community.
Some folks in your community will know where to walk, but others might not. Consider creating a guide with a selection of safe, low-stress walking and/or biking routes through your community. Indicate the distance and approximate time to complete each route, and consider ways to make the streets along the route safer for walkers and bikers during the pandemic.
Off the Path
Paved, off-road paths like bike paths and greenways are very crowded right now. If there are pleasant streets with sidewalks (or where you can create sidewalks by repurposing part of the roadway) that intersect or parallel the path, you might be able to sign some alternative routes along the off-road path. This can alleviate congestion and give folks more space to physically distance.
This is not the time to wait until you have the perfect materials on hand before you get something done, though you should always check with local authorities before making changes to roads. Check out the Tactical Urbanism Guide for recommendations on low-cost, DIY materials that can be used to create everything from pop-up walk/bike lanes to signage. Don’t overlook parked cars as potential DIY materials—on residential streets where parking is allowed, residents might be able to reduce speeding by parking in the street to narrow the travel lane.
Get Some Help
Reach out to [email protected] if you’d like additional guidance or advocacy support for rebalancing streets in your community, or if you have ideas to share with the rest of Vermont!
How to Implement Changes: Adapt and Adjust
Acknowledge that the unprecedented change in lifestyle we’re living through requires adaptation outside of normal processes. Consider what level of public outreach is necessary and feasible in your community, but know that most places are implementing street rebalancing as temporary, emergency changes with little outreach beforehand. With school and work cancelled for many people, street changes that might have disrupted routines before the pandemic aren’t such a big a deal anymore. In fact, residents will likely appreciate the extra space for being outside and staying healthy.