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How COVID-19 repurposed city streets

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Sep 30, 2020
Heard on:
People enjoy a newly added outdoor dining area created by the city partially blocking a main boulevard. “My big challenge now is, how do I make this permanent?” said Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LA Department of Transportation. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

How COVID-19 repurposed city streets

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Sep 30, 2020
Heard on:
People enjoy a newly added outdoor dining area created by the city partially blocking a main boulevard. “My big challenge now is, how do I make this permanent?” said Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LA Department of Transportation. Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

As cities shut down this spring, transportation officials around the country experimented with different ways of using streets.

Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland were among those cities that closed streets to vehicle traffic to allow more space for social distancing. Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and many others launched “Slow Streets” initiatives aimed at opening up neighborhoods for walking, biking and rollerblading, and many have implemented programs allowing restaurants to use street space for outdoor dining

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal met with Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, near one such project in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood where a portion of Degnan Boulevard has been redesigned to give shops and restaurants more space. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ryssdal: Tell me what you were just doing over there?

Reynolds: Well, this actually right here is a project of ours called People St, where we take streets that were open to cars, and we close them to cars and open them to people. This design, these polka dots on the ground have West African art symbols in them that were put together with the community. So they’re community driven projects. We open applications, we ask people where they want to use their streets differently and they tell us. I hadn’t been out to see it in a while, so I was just asking him if he plays here every day, like how they’re used, how’s the community using it, and lo and behold, they are.

Angelenos play basketball in Los Angeles' Leimert Park neighborhood.
LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds said West African art symbols were included in the design of this People St project with input from the community. (Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace)

Ryssdal: Well, so this street is interesting, because it’s a major thoroughfare, right? It’s a main drag of this part of town with stores and shops, and yet part of it is blocked off. Tell me what’s going on there, as you think about using streets in this town differently.

Reynolds: So not everybody thinks about it this way, but streets are actually public space. They’re just like parks or anything else. We who live in a city, we own them. And when we have a huge moment, like the one we’re living through now, where, you know, small businesses … we could see that they were all struggling. So we decided it was time to think differently about how we use that public space, and instead of using it to store cars, could we use it for restaurants to set up tables, for stores to sell to customers? But you know, we have to keep people safe. So, the design of these spaces — you know there’s still cars going through — we have to make sure that people are protected and safe.

Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles' Leimert Park neighborhood where a portion of street has been redesigned to offer small businesses more space during the pandemic.
Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood where a portion of street has been redesigned to offer small businesses more space during the pandemic. (Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace)

Ryssdal: Well, I would point out actually, we’re standing literally in the middle of the street talking to the woman who runs transportation in Los Angeles. So we’re gonna move … let’s go to this side, and as we walk down Degnan Boulevard, I want you to tell me how you thought of recreating this space to let businesses thrive and yet, let traffic and transportation go as well?

Reynolds: Sure, what we did is we actually opened up an application portal and did a lot of outreach to businesses around the city and said, ‘come tell us if you want to use your space differently. If instead of using it for parking, you want to use it for your customers, let us know.’ So we have now about 2,000 businesses around the city that have applied for and received permission to either have sidewalk dining and private parking lots or projects like this. And here, the businesses actually all got together and said, ‘we want to do something along the entire block.’ So we were able to put out these barriers here.

Ryssdal: Yeah, they’re the big water-filled plastic things, you know, three feet, five feet long or whatever.

Reynolds: Yep. There’s still parking across the street, and there’s still two lanes of traffic open. But the traffic on the street moves relatively slowly. So, it’s actually a great place for something like this.

Ryssdal: So let me ask you the post-pandemic, because we’re eventually gonna get there, one hopes, one hopes, one hopes. Is this kind of thing going to keep going? Are we gonna keep thinking about transportation this way in Los Angeles, and also in other cities? I mean, you see New York with some of those streets in Manhattan being blocked off?

Reynolds: I sure hope so. Because you know, these streets, if you add them all up, they make up about 15% to 20% of the public land that we have in a city. If you ran a business, and you didn’t update the way that you use your assets for 50 or 60 years, you’d probably be out of business. Projects like this, I think allow us to get more out of a space that maybe isn’t used in the best way. And so my big challenge now is, how do I make this permanent? And really, you know, what we see here, these sort of water-filled barriers, these are good on short notice —

Ryssdal: Yeah they’re not the best looking thing in the world. 

Reynolds: Yeah, how can we raise the level of design and make them beautiful?

Seleta Reynolds, General Manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation on Degnan Boulevard where a potion of street has been redesigned to allow shops and restaurants more space during the pandemic.
Seleta Reynolds, General Manager for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation on Degnan Boulevard. (Maria Hollenhorst/Marketplace)

Ryssdal: So think, five years out for me. I mean, if you’re able to keep this kind of thing going with better design and more buy in. That’s a seismic change in how we think about transportation and streets in this city and probably many others.

Reynolds: How we think about streets, how we think about work, how we think about the role of transportation in advancing some of our racial and socio-economic equity goals — all of these are things that my colleagues and I and transportation commissioners around the U.S. are talking about and thinking about now. How can we set the table for some of those more positive changes to stick, while we know that at the same time, the amount of venture capital that continues to get poured into private mobility solutions continues unabated?

And in fact, in a lot of neighborhoods in Los Angeles, you know, it became a luxury not to have to drive. If you had a job that allowed you to work from home, your amount of driving plummeted. But we saw this other thing happen in Black and brown neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods, which is that the amount of driving in those neighborhoods actually increased. I think what happened is that people lost their jobs and restaurants and tourism and other things that really make the city’s economy go, and they started driving for Amazon, Instacart, Caviar, Postmates — and that’s not necessarily a good outcome for transportation.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you, actually, since you brought it up, the mobility industry question and also micromobility, as long as we’re on it, right? Uber, Lyft, and all of those, and the food delivery services, but also Lime and Bird. As you think about how transportation is changing — and I’m gonna stipulate here that this pandemic has changed transportation forever, right? Do you buy that by the way?

Reynolds: I do. I’ll buy it for a nickel, Kai. 

Ryssdal: OK. How do you factor those into whatever the new normal is going to be? Because just for instance, I could pull up the Bird app on my phone and I’m not going to find a bird scooter around this neighborhood. But I could go to Beverly Hills or Glendale and find a zillion of them.

Reynolds: Not Beverly Hills, though, they banned them. But yes, point taken.

Ryssdal: So what do you do about that? I mean, this is your job to figure this out.

Reynolds: It is. So we had in Los Angeles, actually, the largest micromobility pilot in the nation. We were the department that wrote the regulations, and part of those regulations included an intentional focus on equitable service. And so, we said to companies, ‘you can only have X number of scooters if you just want to serve Hollywood, and Silverlake, and downtown. But if you go to, you know, South LA to San Fernando Valley to other parts of the city that are overlooked by industry, usually, then you can have more.’ We tried the carrot approach and what we found is it just didn’t work.

So we’ve just passed our year two regulations where the carrot approach is still there, but now we’ve actually instituted a requirement that if you want to be in the trip rich areas of this town, you must also be in the neighborhoods, usually that are just adjacent to them, that are low-income neighborhoods that typically don’t get investment by the private sector unless the public sector intervenes.

E-scooters a pictured along a Los Angeles street on August 22, 2019, - E-Scooters are becoming more pevelant across neighborhoods in southern California, Despite warnings on each e-scooter about no riding on the sidewalk, an e-scooter enforcement task force has been launched in Los Angeles in an effort to ensure riders follow laws which include no riding on the sidewalk and no passengers. creating problems and prompting complaints. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
One challenge for transportation officials is ensuring equitable access to transportation innovations. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

And then, you know, it’s not just Bird and Lime, you could call up on your phone right now. It’s also Amazon, food delivery, goods delivery, every single one of those apps rests on this idea that we should all just be optimizing for our own individual desires and efficiency. When you watch that little car move towards you in the city, it looks like the city is blissfully free of traffic, but what’s actually happening is a tragedy of the commons where everybody is optimizing for themselves, and we as a collective, we lose. 

Ryssdal: Alright, so let’s get back to where we started as we wrap this thing up — the guy playing basketball on your project over there. Let’s use him as the archetype for all Angelenos, who are hustling and bustling and got to get where they got to go, right? How do you make people pay attention to this systemic stuff that you live and breathe?

Reynolds: Well, one of the things I think — the first thing he said, actually, when I walked over there was, ‘this art is really cool.’ This is the creative capital of the world. We have artists and storytellers here who can use art in the street, to startle people out of their day to day. I mean, one of the biggest stories I think, in transportation, at least during the Black Lives Matter movement has been cities putting large murals in the street

A Black Lives Matter mural on East Pine Street in Seattle, Washington, one of many around the country.
This Black Lives Matter mural in Seattle, Washington, was one of many painted onto city streets around the country this summer. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Ryssdal: Literally street art on the street.

Reynolds: Literally in the street. I mean, talk about a transformative sort of approach to get people to think differently about what a street is for. And then we just have to keep being in community and working with people who are the experts on their streets, the people who live and breathe them every day and ask them what they need.

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