New Study Elevates Street Programs Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted very aspect of our lives. From our ability to see friends and loved ones to our once daily commutes, what once had been regular activity has quickly changed and our new travel behavior. As a result, transportation authorities have implemented several policies to promote social distancing, cycling, and walking in order to decrease vehicle use on our streets. Whether you call them “slow streets,” stay healthy streets,” or “safe streets;” communities across the nation have attempted to limit traffic in order to have positive impacts in on our infrastructure, communities, and quality of life.

INRIX, a transportation research firm, analyzed “safe street” programs in Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, Seattle and Washington DC based on their size, implementation, length of operation, and the relative permanence of changes made for these projects. Each urban community has faced unique challenges during this pandemic, and safe street research showed:

  • Total activity on safe streets in New York lagged overall city activity. This trend was somewhat similar in Washington, DC, but Oakland and Minneapolis saw higher safe street usage than overall city activity;
  • Out of all the five cities studied, Minneapolis’s recreational-focused safe streets saw the largest increase in activity despite their program ending in September;
  • Full Block implementation in New York City saw higher levels of activity (78%) than “Open Restaurant” streets (62%) and far higher levels of activity compared to protected bike lane streets (51%). Streets designed for commuting in Manhattan tended to attract fewer people and cyclists than those geared toward recreation;
  • Safe streets in Minneapolis and Seattle saw more visitors than conventional streets likely due to their recreational nature; and
  • Activity on Oakland’s safe streets was higher on those with more visits from lower-income households, and high-income earners having lower levels of activity.

While the overall performance of each program varied, the conclusions illustrated in this report support the need for transportation authorities to examine how to best use finite roadway space once traffic and congestion return to pre-COVID levels. Through continued research, public officials can better determine the best way to maximize public interaction within our transportation network.

Prior to the pandemic, millions of Americans are walking, bicycling, and riding public transportation along roads that were designed only for the motor vehicle and not originally designed to accommodate all users. While it is important that our roadways safely and adequately accommodate motor vehicle demands, roadway systems designed only for motor vehicles can hinder the development of walkable and livable communities.

Safe street programs, which mirror complete street principles, are important to ensure each community integrates the safety, needs, and convenience of all users. ASCE supports safe and complete street programs and encourages all communities to include comprehensive approaches to transportation.

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