From New York to Philadelphia to Duluth, cities are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with infrastructure interventions to help residents maintain safe social distance while accessing necessities and employment, as well as managing their mental and physical health throughout the crisis.
Municipalities should continue to communicate with residents to reinforce the CDC and NYS Department of Health recommendations throughout the crisis to reduce the spread of the virus. Counties, cities, towns, and villages can further facilitate these measures by implementing temporary public space and infrastructure changes.
Residents attempting to follow guidelines to slow the spread face various challenges in high-volume areas. Pedestrians are unable to maintain recommended social distancing guidelines due to right-of-way widths and volume of pedestrians on the sidewalk, transit riders are inevitably close to others, and parks are feeling the strain of increased usage.
Walking, cycling, jogging, and other forms of outdoor recreation promote and maintain mental and physical health, which is increasingly important in a time of heightened stress and uncertainty for everyone. With community centers and gyms closed, the increase in demand has created challenges in maintaining proper social distancing. As the weather continues to improve, this demand will only grow.
To alleviate these challenges and allow for safe recreation and socially-responsible active transportation, GObike produced a tip sheet of best practices and opportunities for municipalities and communities. These steps can be taken quickly and inexpensively to maintain public health and wellness in our neighborhoods:
Safe Social Distancing for Passive Recreation
1) Make more space available in existing parks
- Close roads in and through parks to vehicular traffic and eliminate parking within parks where it can produce more space for walking, jogging, and riding
- Reduce speeds, increase signage, and implement pop-up traffic calming surrounding parks to ensure safe access to those walking, riding, and taking transit to the parks
- Consider temporarily changing parking regulations (or making arrangements with underutilized parking lots) adjacent to parks to ensure access for those with challenges to walking or riding significant distances
2) Create additional capacity for passive recreation with Open Streets at peak times
- In times of peak demand, the expansion of space in the parks will likely not be sufficient to meet demand, particularly as the weather improves. Peak demand is generally on weekends, but municipalities should determine demand based on local knowledge and observation.
- The addition of car-free zones on high-profile streets, boulevards, and commercial areas can be employed as temporary outlets to meet this demand
- Following the model of Cyclovia, a global phenomenon taking place since the 1970s, select streets can be dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists for specified durations [again, generally weekend mornings and afternoons]
- These closures can be combined with other interventions, such as food donations or "walk-through" or "bike-through" COVID-19 testing for those who do not have private automobiles needed for "drive-through" testing
3) Creating Open Streets loops within neighborhoods
- Not all neighborhoods have equitable access to parks, particularly parks that have wide enough and long enough pathways for walking and riding with social distancing compliance
- Families in these neighborhoods are less likely to own automobiles to access parks and nature in other locales
- This disproportionately impacts families that rent, who are less likely to have private outdoor space and the financial flexibility needed to travel to other neighborhoods
- For many, this means avoiding all outdoor recreation at this time; making residents more vulnerable to mental and physical health challenges
- Reducing motor vehicle trips by providing nearby recreation opportunities will help lower car crash rates, relieving stress on overburdened medical and public safety professionals
- Municipalities can identify a network of adjoining streets to restrict access to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit to provide pleasant and safe pathways that mirror the open space opportunities available in other neighborhoods, prioritizing neighborhoods that are lacking in park facilities, have low-car ownership rates and high pedestrian counts, and high population density and high multiple-unit dwellings
- Safe Social Distancing for Active Transportation
4) Reduce underutilized car lanes on arterial roads and parkways to dedicate space to people
- With temporary closures of many businesses and institutions and reduced traffic volumes, underutilized asphalt – including both travel lanes or parking lanes – should be dedicated to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users
- Areas with high pedestrian, cyclist, and transit activity should be prioritized to increase the physical distance available between people on heavily traveled corridors
- These interventions can take the form of temporary protected cycle tracks, expanded sidewalks, and expanded transit passenger waiting areas
5) Expand and implement strategic connections for necessary trips
- Transit is a vital component of a healthy and opportunity-rich city, and the NFTA has already implemented measures to reduce the risk to its passengers and employees
- Other regions have additionally taken steps to expand safe walking and cycling options in heavily utilized transit corridors to reduce transit congestion at peak times
- Working with local transportation authorities – and an understanding of existing transit, cycling, and walking counts, and established longer-range planning documents – municipalities can quickly create additional opportunities safe and active transportation as the weather breaks
- These pop-up interventions often take the form of temporary protected bike lanes, signal timing changes, and other changes at intersections to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to cross streets safely
GObike has developed these examples from best practices of cities across the world who are managing the physical and mental health needs of their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, needs that will only grow the longer social distancing restrictions and institutional and workplace shutdowns are in effect.
Not all interventions will be appropriate in each municipality or each neighborhood, and there will be other interventions not listed here that may work better for a community. For that reason, municipalities need to take a proactive, data-driven, and community-centered approach, implementing strategies that can be tested, monitored, measured, and managed to ensure communities have equitable access to healthy and safe spaces throughout the crisis.
Additional information regarding safe streets, parks, and transportation practices during the pandemic can be found at gobikebuffalo.org and from the National Association of City Transportation Officials' rapid response guide.
Print our guide here.