COVID-19 Policy Recommendations

With COVID-19 cases still rising and experts indicating that the end of the crisis is still months away, most people are looking at a lot more time at home.  But “stay indoors until August” is also not a viable option. People need groceries, medical care, and other essential services. And public health experts agree that people also need access to outdoor space, fresh air, and exercise to maintain mental and physical health. 

Currently, all across the region, people are awkwardly navigating narrow sidewalks and trails, trying to maintain a safe distance. As the weather improves and the weeks stuck at home wear on, this is not tenable. 

In order to make space for essential movement and safe, essential exercise, WABA proposes the following policy changes be implemented by all regional governments.

We support WABA’s COVID-19 policy recommendations for making walking and biking safer during the pandemic. We applaud our elected officials for implementing some but strongly encourage them to go further and employ more policies critical to the safety of communities across the region.

These policy changes are equally applicable to urban and suburban spaces but, it’s important to note that the places people need to access vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Not everyone has access to a walkable grocery store or pharmacy. Crises like this one exacerbate existing inequities in our transportation system and social services, so government actions should be responsive to community needs.

Immediate Actions Needed for Shelter-in-Place and to Prepare for Reopenings

The Washington region is under shelter-in-place restrictions by order of the DC Mayor, and the Maryland and Virginia Governors. Restrictions will be lifted when public health data of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the peak of cases, hospitalizations are in a sustained downward trend. Right now, each state is creating detailed plans for reopening elements of the economy and society, including what physical distancing will mean for the foreseeable future until a vaccine is widely available. The following recommendations apply to the duration of the shelter-in-place restriction and the different phases of physical distancing which may last months to more than a year.

Agency Actions

Sidewalk expansions around high-traffic essential goods and services: Our region’s sidewalks are not wide enough to accommodate safe social distancing in busy, essential places. Metered parking or full travel lanes should be closed to motor vehicles on blocks with grocery stores, healthcare providers, and other high traffic essential services. This can be accomplished with cones, signage, and temporary ADA ramps.

Slow Lanes for essential exercise connectivity: Social distancing requirements have exposed a host of connectivity gaps and choke points in the region’s network of outdoor spaces. Park roads, travel lanes and metered parking adjacent to high traffic parks & trails should be closed to motor vehicles to make space for people to run, walk and bike safely. Similar treatments should be applied to streets that contain on-street or on-sidewalk segments of existing trails — The W&OD Trail at the East Falls Church Metro Station, The Anacostia River Trail on the Benning Road Bridge, The Hyattsville Trolley Trail on Rhode Island Avenue.

Speed management: Lower traffic volume has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of drivers speeding on many roads. Speeding makes severe crashes more likely, and makes roads and public spaces less safe for the people walking and biking through them. Agencies should use every engineering, education and automated enforcement tool available to mitigate this problem: changes in light timing (such as Sunday timing or sequencing signal timing for lower speeds such as 15-20mph), temporary speed limit reductions, deployment of automated enforcement and driver feedback signs (radar speed signs), lane closures, temporary stop signs, roundabouts and other tactical urbanism interventions.

Temporary Protected Bike Lanes: There are dozens of protected bike lane projects in various stages of planning, design and pre-construction in the region. Where appropriate and possible, transportation agencies should establish temporary pilot protected bike lanes using low-impact tactical interventions such as cones, traffic barrels, lane marking tape and other readily available materials. These pilot projects should not seek to circumvent the public engagement for their permanent installation.

Enforcement: Racially biased enforcement by police officers is well documented and in times of crisis this bias can result in discriminatory patterns of enforcement. Additionally, some local jurisdictions activated additional personnel to support police departments through the National Guard or similar reserve forces that often lack training in community engagement and de-escalation techniques. Attention to these details as they apply to community-based policing by any officers is critically important.

Increase shared public and private bike fleets: The reliance on bicycles will increase over the coming months and access to free or affordable, shared bikes will be necessary. Cities and counties should increase available fleets, especially electric bikes for longer trips (2-3 miles). Bikeshare systems should be regularly cleaned and disinfected, and safety supplies (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, etc) made available to users and employees.

Community Led Changes

Given staff and funding constraints at implementing agencies, individuals and communities must be empowered to make changes to neighborhood streets to foster safe mobility and essential exercise.

Turn any residential block into a “Local Traffic Only” block: Residents should be empowered or sanctioned to temporarily convert a residential street into a “Local Traffic Only” block for extended periods. Residents, through existing formal or informal networks such as Civic Associations or Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, could self-organize days and times for street reprogramming. Traffic cones would be placed at the each end of the block with signs stating “Local Traffic Only” and warning drivers to expect people in the street. Streets must be available for emergency vehicle access, US Postal Service and other deliveries, and vehicles of residents and visitors.

Create sidewalk expansions wherever needed: Sidewalks are crowded near essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and medical offices with people accessing entrances and waiting in queues. Cities and counties should create a temporary permit process to create expanded sidewalk space in the adjacent parking lane or curb-lane on a multi-lane street. The additional space should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as much as is practical to ensure that these expanded spaces are accessible for everyone.

Long-Term Vision

Crisis planning: One lesson we have learned during this crisis is we need to be better prepared in the future.  During a crisis or long term-emergency our regional governments should have a plan to increase capacity and direct more resources to expand sidewalks, keep open our parks, and ensure we have multimodal transportation options for essential workers and our most vulnerable populations. 

Whether it involves updating an existing disaster plan or creating a new one, our regional governments should have the implementation strategy, guidelines, and resources so we are never caught off guard in a crisis. Transportation needs and consideration will be different during an infectious disease pandemic compared to a threat of terriorism, natural disaster, political unrest or other major disruption

Therefore, we are calling on all local governments in the region to examine the capacities and resources that are necessary to execute open space and emergency public transportation policies during a crisis. We will be following up with our regional leaders to inquire about next steps to move this forward.

Environmental Impact: Nitrogen dioxide levels are lower in our region because people are driving less, walking more, biking more, or staying home, therefore, when this crisis is over we must continue to transform our systems to reduce the causes of climate change. We can’t go back to the old ways of doing things.

Going forward, we call on our regional governments to speed up the process and commit more resources to completing protected bike lane networks, our regional trail network, as well ensuring we have increased public transportation options that are run on clean energy. 

Climate change exacerbates existing social injustices and creates new ones. A Harvard University study of those sickened in the covid-19 pandemic also showed that people living in polluted environments are far less able to fight off the disease. Communities of color disproportionately are relegated to areas with the greatest amounts of pollution and other environmental contamination, making them more vulnerable to the health crises like the current pandemic. 

If our regional governments commit the resources to create a transportation and infrastructure  system that allows people to drive less, then we create cleaner and healthier environments, which means our communities, especially our most vulnerable communities are less likely to succumb to diseases.

We need to act now, before the next crisis.

While we need to strengthen our healthcare systems for the future, according to Allison Arwady, Chief Medical Officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health, “even if we had a perfect healthcare system in which anyone could access a doctor, we would still see significant health disparities because of food deserts and lack of walkable streets.”

Once this crisis has passed, our regional elected officials need to start the future resiliency and crisis management planning process right away. A process that must include expanded sidewalks, open parks, transportation options for our essential workers and our most vulnerable populations. They must also commit the resources to expanding our protected bike and trail networks with a new sense of urgency.

Safe infrastructure in a crisis matters and we need to plan like it.

Masks and biking

Note: We’re doing our best to stay up on current guidance, but we’re not public health experts, so please follow recommendations from your local government and the CDC.

We know that not everyone can self-isolate indefinitely, at some point you might need to go outside and ride a bicycle to go to work, get groceries, support neighbors and loved ones, or use being active and outside to support your mental and physical health needs.

Should I Wear a Mask When I Bike?

First, here is a summary of our Biking during COVID-19 post:

  • Ride alone, or with your household. The absolute best thing you can do is keep physical distance between you and anyone not in your household. 
  • You are responsible for the safety and health of everybody around you. It is clear that many people have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic. It is best to assume that everyone, yourself included, might be asymptomatic. 
  • Ride less trafficked routes or times.

So Yes or No?  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. If you can, the best thing you can do when outside is still to keep your distance from others not in your household and avoid overcrowded areas. If you are in an urban environment where social distancing is difficult, it’s probably a good idea to wear a mask (research indicates that other forms of face coverings may be less effective) —make sure it fully covers your mouth and nose. A mask can do a lot of good in keeping yourself and others safe with correct user behavior and if they are worn properly and made with proper materials. 

There is a lot we don’t know about how the virus spreads through the air, especially when you add people breathing deeply and moving. Acting overly cautious and giving a wide distance is a good idea. But there is a lot of speculation, scientific theories and dubious studies circulating as well. We’re not going to add to pronouncements about distance and what precisely is safe because we do not have any medical or public health background. There is a great Washington City Paper article about exercise here and Bicycling magazine also has some great coverage that both interview actual experts.

Here are some additional things to consider:

Masks are not perfect. If your mask is not cleaned properly, if you are constantly taking it off or touching it, if you take it off improperly, the mask can increase your risks. The other common way masks can spread COVID-19 is by making people feel overly secure. Wearing a mask is not a substitute from keeping physical distance if possible. Here are the CDC recommendations for using a cloth face mask and for social distancing.

There is a whole lot of make-it-up-as-you-go-along and better something than nothing. Most popular face coverings are based on what is commonly available or that people have at home, and has not been subject to rigorous flow testing. We do know COVID-19 is commonly spread by aerosolized droplets so having something that stops droplets from you going very far does make a lot of sense. Do coffee filters work? Cut up nylon stockings? There is some previous research into homemade face coverings for filtration. A decent place to start is here, and the CDC guidelines, which includes an ASL mask tutorial. 

Masks change our behavior. Masks are a great reminder to not touch your face, keep distance from other people and remind others to keep their distance. 

But, masks may change how others perceive you or how you perceive others. What people assume about a person wearing a mask is not the same for everyone. People are bringing their own lived experience into their decisions about mask-wearing. You or others might choose to not wear one because of fear of violence and that is completely valid. Racism is real. Since December, there has been a huge rise of anti-Asian hatred based on the incorrect assumption that any Asian person must be COVID-19 positive. People of color, particularly young black men, are especially vulnerable to racial profiling, discriminatory practices, and increased policing while wearing a mask.

But what about everybody else?!

Pandemics are scary. We are all experiencing this pandemic slightly differently and coping differently. Some people are hyper-focused on work, childcare, hobbies, reading a lot of pandemic coverage or no pandemic coverage, some folks feel completely calm and others are grasping for the things they can control. The loss of certainty over what you know is terrifying, and there are real public and personal health impacts to the decisions made by others. This lack of certainty and control can often manifest itself in telling other people what to do. This makes conversations about masks, especially on the internet, extremely challenging. 

We encourage folks to follow instructions from health and local government officials. But telling other people what to do can be problematic, especially when it intersects with race, gender, and other lines of oppression. Shame and guilt tripping are not effective persuasion techniques. Additionally, as we mentioned above, people bring their own lived experience into their decisions about mask-wearing. Confronting, yelling at, or calling law enforcement on your neighbors does not build trust. And at worst it can bring financial and bodily harm to others.

Please be thoughtful in how you engage with your neighbors. We need to support, nurture, and love our communities during this time of COVID-19.

March 2020 Advocacy Update

If you rely on your bicycle for essential transportation, you’ve probably encountered some additional challenges in the last couple of weeks.  Governors Hogan and Northam, and Mayor Bowser officially directed residents in DC, MD, and VA to stay at home. In all three states, bicycling is an approved form of recreation, and bike shops are considered essential businesses. Despite these modest victories and the returning spring weather, we urge you to do your part—do not make unnecessary trips, and always maintain 6 feet from others while out

If you are out for an essential trip or safe recreation, you’ve probably met with some of the same issues we have: closed roads, trails that are uncomfortably busy in this time of social distancing, and drivers who see the lack of traffic as an invitation to speed.

Before we dig into some of the specific problems we’re working to fix, it’s worth addressing the underlying structural failures that have put our region in this situation. Riding a bicycle during this pandemic feels frustrating and dangerous for the same reasons it does when we’re not in the midst of a global health crisis: for half a century, our region’s decision makers have focused resources on moving cars, not people. People who bike and walk have been squeezed into the margins of public space to make room for more driving. We know this squeeze has long term repercussions for the climate (or not so long, at this point). But in this moment we’re also seeing the scary and immediate public health consequences of decades of car-centric planning.

Here’s what we’re working on right now:

Reopening Potomac River Crossings.

After crowds squeezed onto the narrow paths and sidewalks around the Tidal Basin earlier this month, the US Park Police and Metropolitan Police Department closed a number of streets and sidewalks through East and West Potomac Park. This closure includes the Memorial Bridge and access to and from the 14th St. Bridge trail. If you need to cross the Potomac River by bike or foot, your options are Key Bridge at Georgetown, the very narrow Theodore Roosevelt Bridge at the Kennedy Center or the Wilson Bridge in Alexandria which has no low-stress connection into DC. All three of these bridges are miles out of the way. 

We are in conversations with DDOT, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the National Park Service to reopen the 14th Street Bridge and Memorial Bridge to bicycling commuter traffic. If you are a bike commuter who needs to cross the Potomac River to get to essential work, please get in touch: advocacy@waba.org

Looking beyond the current crisis, we’re continuing to advocate for more and better river crossings like the Long Bridge, an improved Roosevelt Bridge sidepath, trail connections to the Wilson Bridge, and others

Mitigating Trail Crowding

We’ve checked in with the data folks from around the region and the numbers back up what you’ve probably already seen: on-street bike traffic is down, but trails are much busier than usual, even for springtime. 

This uptick in traffic is not surprising. As the various Stay-at-Home orders are careful to acknowledge, exercise is important to maintaining physical and mental health. But gyms, as well as many local and regional parks, are closed. That leaves trails as the only place where many people feel safe being active and outdoors. 

The way to keep people healthy and safe in this situation is to make more space for people. Trails are narrow, roads are wide. 

We’re talking to folks at the National Park Service about closing park roads in ways that don’t limit neighborhood access to parks. Obvious examples include Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, Fort Dupont Drive, Fort Hunt, and Hains Point. 

Take a look at this blog post for what you can do individually to keep yourself and others safe while riding.

What about creating some Open Streets?

By now you have probably seen stories about cities that are taking advantage of reduced traffic to make space for people who need to get around on foot and bike to spread out. We are inspired by Bogota, Mexico City, Philadelphia, and New York City for installing temporary protected bike lanes and closing entire streets to driving. Many of us look around at our crowded trails, narrow sidewalks and empty streets and ask “why not here?”

In the District:

We’ve had a number of conversations with DDOT staff on this topic over the past week and encountered a frustrating tradeoff: street reconfigurations, even temporary ones, require a lot of staff resources to plan and execute. These resources are limited already, and agency staff say their priority is keeping current bike lane and trail projects on track, rather than pausing and redirecting staff time to temporary infrastructure.  It’s tempting to say “it’s easy! just put up cones!” but the reality of our streets and driving culture is that doing so is simply not safe on most streets.

For now, in most places, we think this is the right call. We are frustrated by the resource and staffing limitations that have led to this tradeoff, but given the constraints, we think building permanent places to bike is more important than building ones that will be dismantled in a few months. This public health crisis will end, and when it does we want biking and walking to be better than they are now.

Speaking of which, our 20×20 campaign is still going. Groups are meeting online and projects are moving forward. Get involved here.

In Maryland and Virginia

Local and state transportation agencies face many of the same resource challenges as the District, but we see a number of opportunities for suburban jurisdictions to take the same approach that we are asking of the Park Service: make additional space on roads in and around recreational spaces to accommodate the additional demand for places to safely bike, walk, and run. Montgomery County has already extended its Sunday Sligo Creek Parkway closures to include Friday and Saturday.

We are compiling a specific list of street closure recommendations to share with each jurisdiction. Please email us if you have specific suggestions: advocacy@waba.org

Planning for Future Emergencies

This crisis has highlighted how much our region’s emergency planning has failed to account for the safety and mobility of the hundreds of thousands of people who live here and do not own cars. 

When the next crisis happens, whether it’s disease or terrorism or something else, governments across the region need to have plans in place to keep people outside of cars safe. Emergency situation or not, being able to cross a river, move safely through your neighborhood, and take care of your family should not be contingent on your ability to afford an automobile.

We are coordinating with regional advocates to move this emergency planning forward.

Biking during COVID-19

Note: We’re doing our best to stay up on current guidance, but we’re not public health experts, so please follow recommendations from your local government and the CDC.

Are you allowed to ride your bike?

Provisionally, yes. Bicycling is included in lists of allowable recreation in Maryland, DC, and Virginia.

Should you ride your bike?

That depends. If you have symptoms or believe you may have been exposed to the Coronavirus, please stay inside. If you need help or supplies, here are some groups offering support. If you just need some exercise, the internet is full of indoor cross training regimens (here’s one, here’s another) for bicycling that will make you faster and stronger when it’s safe to be out in public again. (Just maybe be mindful of your downstairs neighbors if you’re doing jumping jacks). 

If you are not in one of the above categories, there are safe ways to be outside and on a bicycle, whether you need to because your job is considered essential or for physical and emotional health.

Here are our guidelines:

You are responsible for the safety and health of everybody around you.

Pass pedestrians and other bicyclists with at least 6 feet (or more if you’re moving fast) of space every single time. At intersections stop before the intersection to leave 6 feet between you and folks using the crosswalk. At narrow places, slow down enough to be 100% sure that no one is coming in the other direction. More about masks here.

No snot rockets. 

No nose schmearing with your gloves. 

No spitting. 

No high fives. 🙁

Ride quieter routes or at quieter times. 

If you do not have a required destination, try for a meandering route that doesn’t include a popular destination or try and go for an off-peak time. Trails are extremely busy right now: data from regional trail and bike lane counters shows that trail traffic is quietest before 8am, and that fewer people are riding on streets and bike lanes. 

If you’re going out at dawn or in the dark, make sure you have lights.

If you do ride on a trail, remember that pedestrians always have the right of way, so plan on pulling off the trail to maintain a safe social distance. 

Some inspiration: Find the weirdest thing you can in your neighborhood. Seek out a new favorite tree. Is it more fun to ride up or down the steepest hill in your neighborhood?

Make a plan.

Many parks and trails are closed, as are most trail-side park services like restrooms and water fountains. Many businesses are also closed or operating in a limited way. Make sure you have all the water, and snacks, and tools  you will need for your ride. 

Play it safe.

Take it slow, pay attention, don’t go off any jumps. Now is not the time to push your limits or take a big risk. Emergency rooms are overburdened already, and if you show up with a broken collarbone because you tried to learn a Danny MacCaskill trick, you’re taking time from doctors and nurses who need to be treating people who are sick. 

Stay close to home.

Country roads and wilderness adventures may feel tempting, but rural medical resources are even more strained right now. 

Disinfect and isolate your outdoor gear.

Clean your handlebars and other contact points when you get home. At this point, it is reasonable caution to keep shoes, bikes, clothes that have been outside isolated or washed after you’ve been outside. 

Ride alone, or with your household.

Do not ride in a group that is not your household. Period. If you are feeling competitive, take it to Strava. If you need to socialize, put together a photo scavenger hunt with your friends or maybe plan a digital ride with your friends, ride at the same time and share interesting photos?

Hang out with us on the internet.

Biking is still a great solo transportation and recreation option for many people. Has it been a bit since you’ve ridden? We have weekly webinars on and online meetups at waba.org/fun. Give us a call at (202) 430-6385 or outreach@waba.org if you have route planning or general biking questions. (If you need mechanical support, call your local bike shop.)

COVID-19 Support Resources

Places you can help

See our blog post from earlier in the week.

Need a bike to get around during the pandemic?

You have a few options:

Capital Bikeshare is still operational

Bike shops are considered essential businesses in all three states and many are still open. Call first or connect on social media because they are all operating with safety precautions and slightly different procedures. 

Some local folks have put together this handy tool to help people donate bikes to people who need them. 

Stuck in your house because you or someone else in your household has symptoms?

Here are a number of volunteer organizations and mutual aid groups doing delivery and support:

Virginia: Fairfax County Request Form, Volunteer Arlington COVID-19 Care for Community page, City of Alexandria Resource List

Maryland: Montgomery County Volunteer Center , Prince George’s Food Equity Council

District of Columbia: DC Food Project

Just generally freaked out? 

Us too. Grief, trauma and instability are hitting all of us in a variety of ways. Be kind to yourself and your communities. That might be going for a bike ride or it might be curling up on the couch. We’ve got weekly virtual coffee hour and happy hour if you want to just talk with people about bikes, not bikes, or the impossibilities of doing three jobs at the same time, all the details at waba.org/fun.