Oakland’s ‘Slow Streets’ Is an Emergency Measure Long in the Making

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Last week, Oakland, California, announced a bold answer to shelter-in-place coronavirus claustrophobia: To create more outdoor space and safer corridors for essential travel by foot or bike, the city would restrict access to vehicles on nearly 74 miles of city street — about 10% of the city’s street network.

“In this unprecedented moment we must do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of all families across our city,” stated Mayor Libby Schaaf. “Closing roads means opening up our city.”

The “slow streets” initiative, which began on Saturday and will roll out in four segments through the duration of the coronavirus emergency, comes in response to citizen concerns about overcrowded conditions in parks and on sidewalks during the coronavirus lockdown. It’s not really a “closure,” despite the mayor’s phrasing: Emergency vehicles like police cars, fire trucks and ambulances are still permitted to enter these new pedestrian corridors, as are delivery vehicles and residential traffic. In fact, no drivers will be ticketed if they do drive on these streets.

The change is mostly a firm psychological nudge, said Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy and interagency relations in the Oakland mayor’s office. Confronted by a pair of traffic signs and a barricade blocking one lane, drivers now have to think twice about entering these streets. Many will consider taking a different route. And all will hopefully drive more mindfully when they enter a slow-streets zone — an increasingly important concern in cities where the relative absence of traffic has inspired a wave of speeding violations. “When they do turn into the street, they do it carefully,” Logan said.

After a week in action, Oakland officials say the streets are working as planned — no collisions, no reported instances of unsafe gathering, and more families able to move (and dance) at spacious distances. As if out of an earlier era, small children are riding bikes in the middle of the street without their parents needing to worry. “This is an opportunity to remember that these are our streets, not just streets for cars,” Logan said.

The East Bay hub isn’t the first to experiment with car-light corridors during the pandemic, though its program seems to be the country’s most robust so far. Portland, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., have all closed parkway segments to vehicle traffic so that pedestrians, cyclists, and strollers can move more freely at safe distances. New York City briefly experimented with closing a handful of major thoroughfares to cars, but the pilot was quickly scrapped following staffing challenges. On Friday, Streetsblog reported that the city council is developing a plan to open 75 miles of pedestrian streets.

It is a tricky line to tread. Important as outdoor access is, no leader wants to be seen as encouraging risky social behavior — hence the outright closure of many parks and beaches around the world due to crowding. Full-blown road closures seem to require law enforcement to staff the area, something that many cities struggle to balance.

“Neighborhood slow zones cost money, and frankly we’re going to have to prioritize all our resources and our programs going forward,” Brian Abernathy, the managing director of the city of Philadelphia, told WHYY this week when asked why more streets weren’t going car-free during the pandemic. “I’ve got to pay my police officers’ salaries before I install new slow zones.”

The full-throated confidence of Oakland’s program might be explained by how long transportation leaders there have been laying its foundations. The city launched its first department of transportation in 2016, with the goal to shift its policies away from fixing potholes and traffic lights to making the streets safer for all kinds of users, not just drivers.

Ryan Russo, the agency’s first director, has since been quietly putting those progressive goals into action since 2017, with programs like community-led traffic-calming murals, a sweeping update to a 20-year-old bike plan that involved an unprecedented amount of public outreach, and a major effort to repave old sidewalks and surface streets for more welcoming pedestrian access.

“Let’s fund projects that most reflect our values, rather than which people show up at City Hall,” Russo said last year. “Let’s spend the limited funds we have equitably, fairly, and with an objective approach.”

A map of completed and forthcoming slow streets across Oakland. (Oakland Department of Transportation)

The new slow streets are born out of the same spirit, and indeed of existing plans: They align with many of Oakland’s current and proposed neighborhood bike routes. Most of them are in East Oakland, where access to parks and bike lanes is lower. As for the lack of police officers standing by, the program is designed to increase social equity, not exacerbate disparities in the justice system by issuing tickets or other penalties in neighborhoods of color, the city’s website explains.

Beyond that, the goal is to do good traffic engineering: “DOTs always want to design self-enforcing streets,” Logan said. “We’re only going to be meet our goals if people respond to design cues with good choices.”

Not everyone in Oakland is pleased with the results. With little time for the city to communicate the changes, some locals have been unclear about how they’re supposed to enter, as have food and package delivery services. Not all motorists have the local knowledge to reroute themselves. On Nextdoor, some have voiced safety concerns about pedestrians mixing with cars.

“Reactions are very mixed so far,” Robert Prinz, the education director for Bike East Bay, a local bike advocacy group, tweeted on Wednesday. “Oakland is definitely not a one-size-fits-all town. It’s basically impossible to do adequate outreach in the current conditions, and some are confused or anxious about what/who the closures are for.”

The initiative is designed to be easily tweaked or changed in response to community concerns, Russo says, and the city is now formally gathering feedback through an online survey. “In essence, the best way to get public engagement on an idea is to test it,” he said. “In many ways, this is a test — there are signs and barricades that could be easily removed.”

Based on community response, some of the slow streets could conceivably become permanent, while others could go away. And the city should come away with a better understanding of how its bike plan might work, if it were more fully realized, Russo said.

Meanwhile, the reaction on social media — and in the streets themselves — seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

“My favorite moment from #OaklandSlowStreets so far was the kid laying down on his electric skateboard zipping headfirst down the middle of 42nd St & going ‘ow, ow, ow’ every time he ran over a center line reflector,” tweeted Prinz on the second day of the program. “This scene made possible by fresh asphalt & open streets.”