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.
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.
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.
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.