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Beyond Complete Streets: Could COVID-19 help transform our roads into places for people?

August 28, 2020

By Dan Hemme and Anushree Nallapaneni

Some key considerations for those with a vision to make change on the streets of our cities

COVID-19 has had many impacts on our society, though one of the most profound so far has been the dramatic change in how we move about and experience our urban environment. Unsurprisingly, the impact has been felt most profoundly in dense urban areas. In a bid to promote both healthy living and social distancing, many cities have temporarily closed some streets or lanes in exchange for recreational spaces closer to home.

As a result, something very interesting is happening. By changing the way we traditionally use our streets, we are expanding our way of thinking in real time. In a relatively short period of time, cities have announced plans to permanently close some of these “COVID streets” to create new recreational spaces in combination with mobility corridors—essentially linear community commons, or places for people. Seattle has committed to permanently close 20 miles of streets to through traffic. Paris has closed Rue de Rivoli to car traffic for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mayor Anne Hidalgo has plans to close more streets to private cars in the future. We are seeing, in very short order, the city street transitioning into a “place.”

Cities around the world are looking at their streets differently. They are asking how can they make more space for people? 

While things are moving quickly in some centers, this idea isn’t a new one. Two of the most notable “street movements” in recent years have been Complete Streets and Open Streets, and in many ways these COVID street closures reflect the interests of each of them—but for different reasons.

Complete Streets aims to create “streets for everyone,” enabling safe use for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders regardless of age or ability. Open Streets is about temporary—usually over a day or a weekend—closure of streets to automobiles in exchange for free movement of people, turning them into places for gatherings and events for the community. These two movements imagine different uses for our roadways by orienting us to the movement of people, not just vehicles. They help us think of how roadways, as a space, are also a place.

While these movements have made incremental change in some cities, we could be at a watershed moment in their adoption. The current COVID street closure phenomenon can be the leading edge of a new conversation on what streets can be, prompted by citizen interest and proactive government.

No successful revolution goes unplanned. For those looking to take this on, there are important considerations at play.

Thinking differently about our streets doesn’t have to start from scratch. Digging into past work is a great place to start.

Approach community dialogue to honor opinions, build community, and expand trust

Whenever new ideas are considered for the public realm, facilitating the conversation from a good place and in a collaborative way is fundamental. We can’t start out with an agenda to promote changes to streets; we need to gain an understanding of community values as a basis for exploring alternatives. The transformation of these streets from thoroughfares to activated places is only borne out of the expression of those community values.

If you’ve already put temporary measures in place, community engagement may have suffered in the interests of opening space in a short period of time. That doesn’t have to be the end of the story, however. Feedback on these temporary measures can become the engagement process for a more permanent solution—and can be responded to in real-time.

Who this feedback comes from is just as important as the content of the feedback received: take time to involve key community members and organizations. They can help to involve residents who may not traditionally engage with or be represented in the planning process. Be sensitive to the time demands of peoples’ everyday lives. In the new normal, this may take the form of virtual meetings, as we’ve recently conducted in numerous cities.

Use experimentation as a springboard for creative innovation

The fact that COVID streets were closed to traffic almost overnight is a huge opportunity for people to experience something different on a temporary basis that they may now support permanently. We are seeing the power of tactical urbanism used as a community engagement tool.

What do we mean by that? Think of tactical urbanism as “voting with your feet.” Pioneered by economist Charles Tiebout, voting with your feet refers to expressing preference through action. Temporary installations are an opportunity to experiment with new designs, and when they are used by bicyclists, pedestrians, and others, people are expressing a preference for that design. For cities struggling to adapt to emerging forms of mobility, this is an opportunity to receive feedback from the public on new ways of using and experiencing their streets without committing significant capital resources toward construction first.

For those looking to innovate quickly, embracing temporary designs will be necessary. Working within the existing curbline, considering the locations of utilities and other factors, and using temporary materials allows new designs to be put into place quickly, starting the feedback loop at a human scale, and in real time. 

Temporary measures to create space in communities can become the engagement process for a more permanent solution.

Determining criteria for street closure consideration

There are practical considerations for access demands, public investment requirements, utility needs, and more that make some streets better candidates for closure than others. A cohesive transportation network that serves all users is what we’re aiming for, and that includes emergency services, public transit, and commercial users in addition to the general public.

Emergency vehicle routes, transit routes, and commercial trucks have established routes and needs that, while compatible with certain traffic-calming measures and street closures, are incompatible with others. Traffic circles and diagonal diverters present challenges for public transit and vehicles with extended wheelbases, such as fire trucks. Permanent road closures on primary emergency vehicle routes may delay response times for essential workers, particularly where the road network lacks connectivity.

Assess the fit of emerging modes of mobility

Mobility options that challenge the traditional vehicle-dominant streetscape are growing with each passing day, further shifting streets from thoroughfare to commons. Bikeshare, including e-bikes, and the more recent dockless bikeshare have made alternative modes of transportation accessible to a wider range of users. Autonomous e-scooters recently began a pilot in Georgia. The advent of cloud-based technology has ushered in a fast-growing world of connected mobility that challenges the traditional profile of our streets. As traffic is reduced in the present, communities can take inventory of their streets’ ability to accommodate these new forms. Who are the typical users of these new modes? How vulnerable are they to heavier vehicles travelling at higher speeds? What impacts do these new modes have on other, more vulnerable users of our streets, and where might they come into conflict? Open Streets and Complete Streets accommodate these new modes and can create opportunities for their safe use in this reimagined streetscape.

By listening to people “voting with their feet,” new designs can better reflect the needs of the community.

Collect preference and use data quickly to inform future decision making

The advantage to “voting with your feet” is that new designs can be installed, and feedback received, on actual usage. But that valuable information is lost if we aren’t prepared to use it to inform future decisions.

The major difference here is that traditional means of engagement typically address design before implementation—that paradigm is flipped on its head with tactical urbanism. Make sure that resources are in place to capture use data and receive feedback, and that residents are made aware of where and how feedback can be given. Dedicated websites and persons of contact are excellent places to start, while virtual meetings and social media engagement embrace the new digital realm that defines the COVID-19 new normal.  Social media sentiment analytics tools can also capture qualitative feedback on how a new design is being received by the public.  And there’s something to be said for good, old fashioned feet on the pavement—appropriately socially distanced, of course. Remember, preference and use data is of immense value, but only if you can capture it, and know what to do with it. The clock is ticking on any data collected from temporary closures.

Act now and plan now

Thinking differently about our streets doesn’t have to start from scratch. Most cities will have a body of research and engagement with the community on how arteries can better serve the community. Digging into that past work is a great place to start. Supplementing that work with tactical urbanism and new planned engagement can keep the momentum going.

Capital planning for something as significant as transforming streets can take years. As we look to our future streetscape, the traditional buckets of public funding like public works, stormwater, utilities, and parks may need to be approached very differently when streets are part public commons and part mobility artery. If we are to make a real impact on the way we use our streets, we’re going to have to think differently about how we approach the decisions we make.

Now is the time for thoughtful, targeted street innovation. It might be impossible for us to change all our streets to work better for people overnight, but this might be the closest we’ll ever get.

This blog was also featured in Planetizen.

  • Dan Hemme

    Dan is a transportation planner focused on mobility and complete streets plans, bicycle and pedestrian studies, as well as long-range transportation plans for a variety of clients.

    Contact Dan
  • Anushree  Nallapaneni

    Working out of our Toronto office, Anu is an urban designer and architect who possesses strong design visualization skills. Fascinated by community-oriented design, she’s as enthusiastic about planning as she is about teamwork.

    Contact Anushree
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