Coronavirus

Adding open space: How other cities are opening streets to pedestrians during coronavirus

Walking in Charlotte NC

This story has been updated to reflect plans Charlotte released following its publication.

Across the Charlotte region, parks have been full and streets largely empty for the past several weeks, as people try to get out of their houses for fresh air and exercise while staying home from work and school.

Other cities have been opening vast stretches of their streets to walkers, joggers, bicyclists and others seeking outdoor space while following social distance guidelines. The logic is simple: Auto traffic has plunged to levels no one could imagine two months ago, while millions of people need more places to be outside than often-inadequate parks. 

Paris has committed to 400 miles of new bikeways. On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to opening 100 miles of city streets to people by closing them to cars, with 40 miles open within the next month. The city will focus on streets around parks, as well as expanding sidewalks and protected bicycle lanes. Oakland has closed about 74 miles, or 10 percent, of its street network to through traffic. 

“It is exactly the time to really try,” said Carlos Pardo, who leads pilot programs for the nonprofit NUMO and is coordinating mobility programs for Bogotá, Colombia. He was speaking at a webinar Monday by Smarth Growth America to share strategies for closing streets to cars during the coronavirus crisis. Often a contentious issue, street closures are finding acceptance in many cities. “You can really move forward, and they will really pay attention.”

[This story is part of our coverage of the novel coronavirus and how the Charlotte region is responing. Read all of our related stories here.]

Late this week, Charlotte leaders this published plans to open more streets to pedestrian and bicycle access, in response to a crush of people at some popular locations like Freedom Park. Mecklenburg County, which for years has ranked near the bottom for per-capita park spending and access, closed parking lots at local parks to limit crowding in response (they were reopened on Thursday). North Carolina is under a stay-at-home order until at least May 8, with a gradual, phased reopening sometime after that which could extend for several months — meaning vehicle traffic is likely to stay low for a long time.

Charlotte Assistant City Manager and Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba said Monday that the city will roll out a plan after the stay-at-home order lifts in early May.

“We already have branded plans in place for candidate streets ready to go,” he said.

For the first phase of its pilot, Charlotte will close three residential streets near parks to through traffic: McClintock Road from The Plaza to Morningside Drive, Romany Road from Euclid to Kenilworth Avenue, and Jameston Drive/Irby Drive/Westfield Road from Freedom Park to Brandywine Road.

The closures will start May 9, and though they are temporary, the shared streets will remain through the pandemic. Residents will still be able to access those streets. Future closed streets could include Thomas Avenue in Plaza Midwood, 35th Street in NoDa and Fifth Street uptown. 

“Residents should understand that the SHARED streets do not present an opportunity for residents to congregate and that they should continue following social distancing guidelines,” city officials said in a news release.

There’s already plenty of demand for more car-free places to walk in Charlotte. Open Streets 704, which closes streets twice a year for big, one-afternoon festivals, drew a record 20,000 people in the fall to walk in neighborhoods including Seversville, Wesley Heights, Uptown, South End, Wilmore and Dilworth.

Ironically, this month’s Open Streets 704 event was canceled due to coronavirus.

The availability of sidewalks varies sharply from neighborhood to neighborhood in Charlotte. In many parts of the city, less than half of streets have a sidewalk. And among those that do, sidewalk quality and size can vary widely, from wide, well-maintained paths set back from the street to broken patches of concrete just feet from traffic going 45 mph or more. 

Despite the surge in interest over recent weeks, many cities haven’t taken steps yet to open streets. Some fear attracting the very crowds they’re seeking to control.

“A number of cities have said we don’t feel comfortable, it’s not safe,” said Mike Lydon, principal at Street Plans. “Most cities have done almost nothing, or are limiting access to trails, parks, greenways.”

But the idea appears to be gaining steam. More than 100 around the globe have instituted some kind of changes to accommodate walkers and bicyclists, according to Smart Growth America. Many are limiting but not totally barring vehicles, in order to accommodate residents and businesses.

“We’re seeing a growing number of cities take a hybrid approach,” said Lydon, shutting down cerain streets to through traffic but letting local traffic proceed. “This has resulted in miles and miles of open streets.”

Charlotte could face several challenges in opening more streets to pedestrians, one of the city’s long-simmering ideas that’s so far seen no action. Any such plan would likely require the county health department’s approval (Mecklenburg has been managing the public health-related aspects of the crisis, and manages parks and greenways).

Charlotte is also much less dense than cities such as Paris and New York, and spread out over more than 310 square miles, which means that closing even a central thoroughfar like South Tryon Street wouldn’t suddenly create a biking haven for a large share of the population. Making an impact would require a network of streets, connected by parks and greenways. And many of the city’s thoroughfares are actually controlled by the N.C. Department of Transportation. 

State control of key roadways is a challenge in many cities. Charleston Transportation Director Keith Benjamin, speaking on the Smart Growth America webinar, said they are working through the same issue.

“It’s different from city to city,” said Benjamin. But he said the city is looking at how to open streets around some of Charleston’s 100 parks to pedestrians. “We’re having some conversations about completely eliminating vehicular traffic on those streets.” 

And coronavirus-inspired measures could help cities promote long-term goals of getting people to drive less and reduce traffic by offering other ways to get around. 

“Now that we’ve cleared so many streets of crushing traffic, there’s the opportunity to think about what comes next,” said Lydon. “I think the next four to eight weeks are going to be critical.”

Minneapolis has opened dozens of miles of streets in a series of loops, connections to greenways and links to vital stores like supermarkets, in order to make it safer and easier for people to get around without a car. Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson said the city has used temporary measures such as signs and bollards to quickly close streets to through traffic and stay flexible.

“We opened up pretty quickly about five miles of space,” said Hutcheson. The city is continually reevaluating its plans, and working with surrounding municipalities like St. Paul to expand the network. “If it’s not being used, we may not keep it...We are all learning.”