As Philadelphia starts week two of the mandated stay-at-home order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, some advocacy groups want more streets to be closed to cars. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia successfully pushed to block car traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from East Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval, freeing up the road for walkers and bikers who are commuting or exercising, which is allowed under the order. But critics worry more closed streets will encourage people to congregate outside and keep spreading the virus.
Should Philly go the way of cities like New York and shut down more streets?
By Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman
As the city reacts to the COVID-19 crisis, closing nonessential businesses and preparing hospitals for the inevitable wave, it has an opportunity to act aggressively on another crucial component: our streets.
While most of us are required to stay in place, going outside safely for exercise is still allowed and, according to doctors, even required for our mental health. To that end, MLK Drive has been closed permanently to encourage physical activity. But some Philadelphians do not have easy access to trails, and this wooded drive is far and away from crucial life-sustaining services that frontline workers need to commute to.
We are advised that walking, cycling, scootering, and skating are safer ways to get around than public transportation and ride-sharing. Beyond that, not everyone has their own personal vehicle. The city should act to create a citywide network of car-free streets for exercise and crucial commuting pathways.
This “People Way” would provide a comprehensive network at three key levels:
Pop-up plazas: Temporary open space by closing adjacent blocks near busy, life-sustaining businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies to prevent crowding where long lines are likely.
Bicycle superhighways: Major arteries transformed into car-free, multimodal transportation spines for essential workers to get to their jobs, focusing on direct access between crucial spaces like hospitals, grocery stores, and post offices.
Citywide slow zone: Enact a temporary lower speed limit of 15 mph across the entire city to discourage speeding along less crowded streets, and create a shared-street atmosphere in neighborhoods so residents can walk, run, or even play outside for their limited exercise needs if they don’t have easy access to a trail or large park.
Further, to truly support those who need it most, the city could provide free Indego passes to move even more people onto this safer mode of transportation at these desperate times.
As New York City’s Comptroller Scott Stringer put it: “During this pandemic, if we’re going to help the workers on the frontlines get to work, we have to ensure they have a safe way to travel each day — on bikes and by foot. For the health of our workers, it’s time we take decisive action to expand sidewalk space and open up more streets to bikes and pedestrians across the five boroughs.”
Philly’s needs are similar: Narrow sidewalks and streets filled with parked cars make it difficult to pass other people at a safe distance, forcing people into the street regardless. Not everyone has access to a patio, yard, or trail. The good news is we’ve done similar things in the past with the annual Philly Free Streets and the popular block party program. Such systems can also be enacted using volunteers or paid stewards to monitor major intersections and keep the barriers in place.
Right now, rather than being a fun summer activity, this temporary measure can save lives. NYC has already seen an increase in cyclist injuries during the coronavirus. We should act before we see the same.
With so many lives on the line, these steps are necessary to prevent even more deaths through needless physical contact, unprotected bikeways, and isolation- and inactivity-induced stress. Then maybe, just maybe, we can take these lessons learned into the future city post-pandemic, like Market Street in San Francisco or the Superblock system of car-free streets in Barcelona.
There’s no better time to create a safer city, for however long this lasts.
Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman is a lecturer, researcher, and advocate for humanist cities who consults through her firm THINK.urban and is an adjunct professor for the masters of urban strategy at Drexel University.
By Abraham Gutman
Until recently, well into my twenties, I was the youngest in my family. Having never babysat or been an older sibling, I just didn’t know what to do with kids. That became a real challenge when my daughter, Mara, was born two years ago. How to keep her healthy, clean, and — most difficult of all — entertained was all new to me. But I learned her, and she learned me.
Then the coronavirus hit. Day care closed, and so did all of Mara’s favorite activities. At first, Mara’s grandma took a shift a few hours a day, but we quickly became worried about exposing her to COVID-19, since my wife, Sarah, is a physician and travels back and forth from the hospital. Now Mara is home, all the time.
Sarah is very creative with Mara. I struggle more, unsure how to keep her stimulated while every muscle in my arms wants to pick up and check my phone.
If not for the coronavirus, there would have been an easy solution: go outside and let her play for hours. Instead, we do short walks around our block — crossing the street to avoid other pedestrians. Mara’s heart breaks anytime we pass by a friend who can’t pick her up.
One proposal that has surfaced in Philly parenting and other circles is for Mayor Jim Kenney to shut down more streets, especially small ones, to cars, making it easier for kids to play. That sounds amazing. But it is a bad and risky idea.
Our city’s No. 1 goal right now is putting the nightmare of coronavirus and social distancing behind us as quickly as possible. Perhaps, ironically, the only way to do that is making the nightmare even worse for now — adhering to extreme social distancing while pressuring the government to increase testing and health care capacity.
From everything we know about SARS-COV-2, it is a highly transmissible virus that lingers both on surfaces and in the air. That means every excursion out of the house means risking exposure and exposing others. Such outings must be limited to the absolute necessary: grocery store trips, solitary workouts, walks around the block.
People — kids included — who are not symptomatic can transmit the coronavirus. It is extremely hard to imagine a street with multiple kids and parents actually maintaining social distancing. But even if they do, it’s still risky. The biggest problem with shutting more streets to cars is the message it sends: that it’s OK to be outside. In recent days, more and more pundits have been calling to ease social distancing measures for the sake of the economy — a trend that originated in the White House (which walked back those calls only after pressure from experts).
Hospitals in New York City are overwhelmed with patients, people — including young people — are dying, and cities like Philadelphia are renting trucks with fridges to increase morgue capacity. You don’t need any public health training to know that this is not just a bad flu season.
The only signal that should come from government officials right now is: Stay at home, save lives. The only way this nightmare of social isolation and pain — both worse for people losing their incomes, not to mention loved ones — ends is if everyone does their part. That means only necessary and cautious time outside.
One day, Sarah and I will explain to Mara why she couldn’t see her friends and day-care teachers she misses so much. If we raise her right, she’ll understand that it was our civic duty to stay home.
Abraham Gutman is a staff writer for The Inquirer’s Opinion team.