Oakland city officials kicked off a program Saturday to limit 74 miles of streets to only pedestrians and cyclists. That’s right: No cars, baby.
This type of move is critical during the coronavirus pandemic. People are stuck inside but in need of fresh air and exercise. Finding space outside to do so safely with the required six feet of social distancing can be damn near impossible, though.
“At a time like this, people especially need to be able to get out and get fresh air,” Sarah Kaufman, the associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, told Earther. “Although we are recommended to stay six feet away from one another, our sidewalks are often not wide enough to allow for that.”
Oakland’s plan is one of the most ambitious in the nation. But cities like Boston, Minneapolis, and even Louisville are formalizing car-free roads in a time when many roads are already car-free as activity screeches to a halt. But what about making this a permanent change in U.S. cities? Transportation makes up the largest portion of national greenhouse gas emissions. Cars ain’t the future in a carbon-free world. These street closures give us a glimpse of what a more sustainable future can look like in the U.S. After all, this is very much A Thing cities outside the U.S. are doing to lower their carbon footprint and improve public health and safety.
“Although it’s not top of mind for many right now, we still have the warming Earth, which is a crisis as well,” Kaufman said. “And a primary way to mitigate global warming is limiting the use of personal cars.”
Barcelona, for instance, launched a program in 2014 to develop so-called “superblocks” in the city. These superblocks span some 1,300 feet by 1,300 feet. The inner portion of the blocks is mostly closed off to traffic, except emergency vehicles, residential traffic, and delivery trucks. The rest of the cars have to stick to the outskirts of these superblocks. Instead of roads for cars, the city has turned the streets into places for people with playgrounds, benches, and communal space for residents to enjoy. It’s an impressive display of urban design, but this effort can also help prevent nearly 700 deaths a year in the city. That’s because cars and congestion pollute the air—and air pollution kills.
Paris has a whole campaign around improving air quality in the city by taking cars off the road. “Paris Breathes” closes off portions of the city to vehicles every Sunday. That gives pedestrians and cyclists a safe space outdoors they can enjoy. And doing so also brings the city closer to its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
Giving people space and cleaning the air is never a bad idea. But it’s even more relevant now as scientists find that increased exposure to air pollution can increase the likelihood of death from covid-19. Air pollution exposure can harm the respiratory and cardiac systems, and these types of health issues make individuals more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Cars are a major driver of urban pollution. With the coronavirus lockdowns, traffic has cleared up and with it, air pollution has dropped around the world as people stay home. The health problems that preceded the coronavirus for communities near busy streets and highways—usually poor communities of color—will likely persist after the pandemic passes. That is, unless we take actions that have helped lower air pollution levels and freed up space for people today and make them permanent.
Oakland is still figuring out the logistics of how this plan will all play out in the city, Clarrissa Cabansagan, a policy director at TransForm, a local group that’s been partnering with the city’s Department of Transportation to roll out the program, told Earther. So far, only 15 miles of streets have been closed to allow for limited car traffic, but the goal is closer to 74 miles. The city has also identified the same 74 miles of roadways as future bike boulevards, which are supposed to be outfitted with roundabouts and speed bumps to discourage cars from using them. Whether this plan becomes permanent will depend on how residents react to it.
While closing off streets to traffic benefits the public health and the environment, not everyone reaps the same rewards. Many communities face threats beyond traffic. Gang violence or police brutality are problems for some communities of color, which are their own kind of pollution. You can’t clean up a community without addressing the social ills, too.
“There is that nuance that we do want to recognize,” Cabansagan said. “As advocates for biking and walking, we see this as a big win. We also see this as, probably, the whiter affluent places will benefit more from the initiative than the disadvantaged communities, so how do we elevate what’s relevant to our East Oakland community or West Oakland community?”
In my city, advocates are pushing New York officials to take a similar approach. Local advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has put out a petition demanding open streets to protect pedestrians during this health crisis. However, reductions at the city’s Department of Transportation as well the police force presents a challenge in moving forward on planning and enforcing any type of infrastructure change like this, Kaufman said.
Still, the pandemic highlights the inherent problem with the way cities like New York are designed. Cars are given too much space. The rest of us are forced to make do. That includes the essential workers forced onto crowded buses and trains who won’t bike because that can still feel pretty dangerous in a city like New York, Joe Cutrufo, the communications director for Transportation Alternatives, told Earther.
“How many people’s lives could’ve been saved if they had a safe way to bike to work instead of having to get on the subway?” Cutrufo said.
Who knows, man, but I know I’m staying the hell away from the subway. Even stepping out of my apartment riddles me with anxiety these days. People are everywhere, headed who knows where. Perhaps they’re just seeking a breath of fresh air, like me. Plenty of cars still drive by, and a driver struck a pedestrian right outside my place a week or so back. Maybe I’d be willing to venture outside to destress in a time like this, if only there were more room to breathe easy.