Cities Are Closing Streets To Create Spaces For Social Distancing — D.C. Will Not D.C. Mayor Bowser says she doesn't want to encourage a "festival-like" atmosphere. But advocates say that's not what they want.
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Cities Are Closing Streets To Create Spaces For Social Distancing — D.C. Will Not

Trails and sidewalks are crowded as people try to escape outdoors. Here, a sign encourages social distancing near the Tidal Basin. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

The pandemic has shut down much of civic life and forced people outside as solo recreation becomes the last reprieve from our stay-at-home orders.

Now, trails are packed with cyclists. Narrow sidewalks aren't big enough to hold runners, families and people walking their dogs.

The problem is particularly acute in cities where apartment dwellers have no backyard or balconies or outdoor space of their own.

Federal officials recommend getting outside for exercise to stay healthy and sane, but the desire to be outdoors and limited infrastructure has hindered people's ability to stay six-feet apart — another government recommendation.

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Local governments in Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and other cities around the world have made more space for people, by taking away a lane of roads that have seen declining vehicle traffic or closing some roads altogether.

In D.C., about 700 people signed a letter requesting some lane closures to make larger sidewalks, turn some streets into "local traffic only" and open streets parallel to trail networks.

"Social distancing is only effective if people have the space to do so," the letter says.

"It is a mistake to dismiss outdoor access as a luxury, especially when most D.C. homes don't have lawns and D.C. parks are closed," it read.

On Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser shot down the idea on the Kojo Nnamdi show saying, "I don't want to send the message to people to go out and have a festival."

On Monday, Bowser reiterated her position during his daily coronavirus news conference: "I'm not convinced by this open-streets argument."

The mayor says those measures would only encourage people to crowd the streets. The District Department of Transportation didn't comment beyond Bowser's thoughts.

Some critics say people don't need to exercise outdoors now and everyone should be staying inside except for essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy or their doctor's office.

But advocates say they don't want festival like conditions similar to last year's Open Streets event on Georgia Avenue. They just want more space to avoid others. The Washington Area Bicyclists Association says it's a good idea, but not a priority. Greater Greater Washington has endorsed the idea.

No locality in the region has embraced the idea fully

Few jurisdictions in the D.C. region have embraced the idea, though some have implemented small changes.

A spokesperson for Arlington County Department of Environmental Services said they aren't considering taking streets out of vehicular service.

"Emergency vehicles and essential workers are still depending on the road network to get to medical facilities," Jessica Baxter said last week.

A coalition of bicycle, parks, and family advocates in Arlington sent a letter to county leadership on Tuesday, requesting consideration of the idea in some of the denser areas of the county.

"Streets that have more than one lane in each direction provide the opportunity to close one lane, as would be done for construction, and maintain access for emergency vehicles and others who need to drive on the streets," the letter reads.

Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass says he supports the idea of open streets but admits there are hurdles.

"This issue is really about being able to maintain everyone's mental and physical health," Glass said. "People are holed up in their homes and needing to escape — they need to get outside, get some fresh air.

"(But) with those opportunities come responsibilities, and people still need to be mindful of the health risks that we are trying to stem."

Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Chris Conklin had concerns about access for emergency services and public transportation. He also notes that any road closures — partial or in full — require consideration.

"How many houses or businesses are accessed from the road? And is there a way to reconfigure their access so that they can stay functional while having a portion of the road open for recreational use?" he said, listing off the kinds of questions that need answering before the department can move forward with such a project.

Another complication in Montgomery County is that only some roads in the county are county-managed. Others are overseen by the State Highway Administration or the park system.

But despite all that, Montgomery County decided to implement some very specific temporary road closures to help create more space for residents to spend time outside while staying six feet away from other people: they've closed Sligo Creek Parkway between Piney Branch Road and Maple Avenue, as well as between Maple Avenue to Old Carroll Avenue, to cars during weekends to create more space for outdoor recreation.

Glass says that's a relatively easy way to test the idea of opening streets up to pedestrians and bicyclists.

"It is easier to re-use space adjacent to parkland, where traffic can easily be diverted or closed during periods of time," he said. "And the natural environment is more relaxing and inviting."

Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy group that supports the "open streets" idea, said the concept could be tricky to execute.

In D.C., one of the challenges is staff capacity, both for bike and pedestrian planners in figuring out the details of where and how to change streetscapes and potentially for police in enforcing those changes.

"[D.C. has] pedestrian and bicycle planners who are continuing to plan and execute important projects," Cort said. "They want to keep them on track for doing that rather than to change what they're doing and take a look at emergency street closures."

Cort agrees that roads close to green space are lower-hanging fruit for modifying the streetscape for non-car use, as Montgomery County has done. She notes that Rock Creek Parkway already changes direction daily to match commuting patterns, so the mechanism for daily shifts in road use is already in place. Roads near Fort Dupont Park could also be relatively easy changes.

Glass thinks Montgomery County could do more. He worries, in particular, about the denser areas of the county close to D.C., like Bethesda and Silver Spring, where residents are more likely to live in a carless household.

"I think there are thoughtful ways that we can use a scalpel to find roads and areas where it makes sense," he said.

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