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With fewer cars on the road, some cities make more space for walking

Jack Stewart Apr 13, 2020
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Empty highways and streets during rush hour in car-dependent Los Angeles on April 6. Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

With fewer cars on the road, some cities make more space for walking

Jack Stewart Apr 13, 2020
Empty highways and streets during rush hour in car-dependent Los Angeles on April 6. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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If you tried to go out for a walk or run over the weekend, you may have run into a problem maintaining 6 feet of social distancing. 

When sidewalks aren’t that wide — and getting crowded — it’s tough to keep a decent amount of space between you and other people. Some cities are experimenting with closing streets to cars to allow more room for cyclists and pedestrians. That could change the way we think about our cities.

For example, the car is king here in Los Angeles. But over the last few weeks, while we’ve been staying at home, so has the king — in our garages and driveways. 

I’m on Hollywood Boulevard, where there are six lanes for cars. On a Monday, this would normally be packed. Today, although there’s some traffic, it’s light. But pedestrians are still squeezing past one another on a sidewalk that’s maybe 8 feet wide if you don’t have to duck around the trees and benches and bus stops. 

This past weekend, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf closed 74 miles of streets to through traffic in what she called “an effort to give Oaklanders space to spread out.”

Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Denver are among the other places trying something similar. 

So is Boston, where Jonathan Berk, an advocate for walkable urban communities at Patronicity, took advantage of a closed street on Saturday.

“It was not packed, but well-spaced out with rollerbladers, bikers, walkers, pedestrians,” Berk said.

He said New Zealand is out ahead of other countries — the government is funding every city to make changes.

“They’re viewing this, rightfully so, as an opportunity to say, ‘We can rearrange our land-use patterns in downtown to allow for more space for people to move safely, go back into restaurants, bars, stores, and to start moving the economy again,’ ” Berk said.

Closing streets doesn’t have to cost a lot, according to Brent Toderian, a city planner and urbanist and former chief planner for Vancouver, Canada. 

“This pandemic has really revealed how little space we actually have in many cities for people because of all the space we’ve given to cars,” Toderian said.

And with urban dwellers stuck in small apartments, it’s highlighting how important public space is. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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