Since the pandemic hit, cities across the United States and the world have planned and implemented changes to their streets to allow for increased mobility and commerce. Philadelphia is now behind the curve. Closing Martin Luther King Drive to drivers was a great first step in the early days of the pandemic, but the city has taken no further action.
Denver and Oakland, Calif., have miles of slow streets that allow for limited through traffic while allowing neighbors to safely walk, bike, and play in their streets. Paris and London are expanding bike lanes, with London expecting a tenfold increase in cycling as the economy reopens and people desire to commute and maintain social distance. Washington, D.C., Boston, and Barcelona, Spain, are considering new bus-only facilities to allow transit to flow more easily, reducing travel times and onboard loads. Expanded outdoor dining space and pedestrian areas are being proposed by places like West Chester, Tampa, Fla., and Vilnius, Lithuania.
But we don’t have to just take a page out of the playbooks of other cities, Philadelphia can be a leader in public health as we have been in the past when Fairmount Park was created to ensure clean drinking water
That is why a coalition of Feet First Philly, the Clean Air Council, the Bicycle Coalition, and 5th Square are now advocating for a plan to provide outdoor safe spaces for Philadelphians and prevent the further spread of this disease. This proposal, Recovery Streets, is a menu of interventions for our roadways that includes all of the concepts listed above, plus a few more, such as an expanded Play Streets program. As a part of Recovery Streets, we also recommend that a Metropolitan Center cordon be instated, like the one created for Pope Francis’ visit, but smaller, to limit traffic in Center City and University City.
Cordoning, while the most aggressive approach, may require the least manpower, enforcement, and messaging. Instead of tailored plans for each corridor or block-by-block approaches, limited access to a single area requires a blanket message that prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit in a “share the road” scenario that reduces congestion, enables social distancing, adds vibrancy to city streets, and benefits the environment.
With quick action before Philadelphia moves to the yellow or green phase, the measures by which Gov. Wolf is assessing areas of Pennsylvania for reopening, the cordoned area can be put into place while congestion is at its lowest. Then, priority streets for protected bike lanes, expanded pedestrian and dining spaces, and bus-only lanes can be decided with more time and data. This approach places the priority on allowing people into our economic centers while providing room for social distancing in a phased reopening.
With vehicle travel at an unprecedented low level, now is the time to rethink the use of our street space. Philadelphians can imagine and take control of the type of city and quality of life we want post-COVID-19. There are few silver linings to come out of this crisis, but we should embrace those that exist. Clean air. Reduced noise pollution. Return of nature. Appreciation of being outside. These are not things we want to lose. With a reprioritization of our street space, we can keep all these things.
Nick Zuwiala-Rogers works for the Clean Air Council. Jennifer Dougherty is the chair of Feet First Philly.