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Leaders from SF, Philly, Duluth and Bogotá discuss open streets as a public health strategy

I recently had the opportunity to attend “Closing Streets to Create Space for Walking and Biking During COVID-19,” a webinar hosted by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. Speakers for this event were Jim Filby Stuart, Director of of Public Administration with the City of Duluth, MN; Jodie Medeiros, Executive Director of Walk San Francisco, Sarah Clark Stuart, Executive Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and Laura Leticia Bahamón Peña, a Bicycle Manager with the Ministry of Transportation in Bogotá.

You can watch footage of the webinar here. I'm going to focus here on the parts that resonated most with me.

Medeiros stated that Walk San Francisco's mission is highly aligned with Vision Zero, the movement to eliminate serious and fatal traffic crashes, given that people walking suffer the most severe traffic injuries in San Francisco. To this end, the organization supports a number of campaigns to create safer streets. San Francisco is no stranger to limiting cars to certain spaces in the city. Along with San Francisco’s recent successful Market Street for people and transit initiative, Golden Gate Park has been car-free on Saturdays for 40 years.

Walk San Francisco started a campaign to close JFK Drive, a main thoroughfare in the park, and other streets within the park, to cars during San Franciso’s COVID-19 shelter in place order. Walk San Franciso urged the city to provide a safe and peaceful space for socially-distanced recreation. The petition drive received over 500 signatures within 24 hours. San Francisco Mayor London Breed placed the decision to open up more streets within Golden Gate Park in the hands of Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Dr. Colfax came out against opening up more space within the park due to concerns people would congregate. Walk San Francisco has since put the campaign on hold. Medeiros mentioned in a blog post that the campaign was temporarily shelved because continued lobbying would not be well received. 

I understand Walk San Franciso's decision to put the campaign on hold in recognition of the numerous pressures the public health system is under in the midst of COVID 19. The organization, understandably, is considering how they are being perceived in calls that seem to support what some would call an anti-car agenda. I see the call for open streets in the midst of COVID-19 as a reasonable request. Streets are seeing much lighter car traffic due to Stay at Home orders. It makes sense to open up space for people to safely get outside to incorporate movement into their day and perhaps clear their mind. Anecdotally, many people are reporting that while there has been a reduction in the number of drivers, the drivers who are on the road are taking advantage of the light traffic to speed. We can take steps to reduce speeding and create space for safe, socially-distanced recreation. 

I was most excited to hear from Laura Leticia Bahamón Peña, a Bicycle Manager with the Ministry of Transportation in Bogotá. I believe it's important to hear from Black and Brown voices in these discussions for open streets given the homogeneous demographic that tends to be highlighted in open streets discussions. South America is also home to many displays of tactical urbanism that North America would do well to emulate. Bogotá has a nearly forty-year-long history of making space for people on bikes through their weekly Sunday Ciclovía, an event that provides car-free recreation and a place for social gathering for 7-8 hours. The Ciclovía has inspired similar events across the world, including Chicago's Open Streets events, which were unfortunately canceled due to funding challenges.

One of Chicago's Open Streets events on Milwaukee Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield
One of Chicago's Open Streets events on Milwaukee Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

Bogotá has responded to COVID-19 on the transportation front by creating 47 miles of new bike lanes parallel to transit routes experiencing crowding. At a press conference yesterday, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said the CTA is monitoring bus ridership and moving accordion buses from Lake Shore Drive express routes that are currently seeing light ridership to neighborhood bus lines that have been experiencing dangerous crowding.

Similarly, I'd like to see the Chicago Department of Transportation create safer conditions for walking and biking during the pandemic, when we're seeing a surge in these modes. Making some streets partially or completely car-free would be a good approach.

I'll end by saying I was inspired by some of the panelists who mentioned that having supportive city officials has been key to opening opening up streets to people during the pandemic. Jim Filby said he was grateful that leaders in Duluth understand that decreasing viral transmission and supporting physical and emotional health during a time of trauma are important. Our leaders in Chicago would do well to adopt this mindset. 

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of COVID-19, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

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