Our beloved Oakland made its way into the national news recently for a policy initiative that our urbanist fans probably appreciate—they banned cars… at least most cars on a few select residential streets throughout the city. The measure came in response to the crowding concerns they were seeing at local parks and around Lake Merritt and downtown. We’re all cooped up in our homes and the streets are one of the only places we can go for a walk or a run, or take the dog out, or just get some fresh air. But with everyone doing that, it’s created problems.
Ryan Russo is director of the Oakland Department of Transportation and he says that crowded sidewalks have been a big problem during this lockdown. People may want to get out for a run, but sharing a sidewalk while breathing heavily from exercise poses a health risk for others. The average sidewalk is about 5 ½ feet across so there is just not enough room to safely share a sidewalk with another pedestrian. And so the City of Oakland decided to close 74 miles of streets in order to allow for more pedestrian access.
“They tend to already be low traffic volume, but they connect you to places,” says Russo, “And what we are doing is selecting from those 74 miles which ones should get soft closure treatments.” Soft closures mean that basically they’re throwing up a temporary road blockade and a 5mph sign. The streets are still open to people who live there, delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles, but otherwise, the street is for pedestrians and bicyclists and little kids on scooters and teenagers juggling soccer balls and dads doing jump rope.
Despite the circumstances, this is something that a lot of urbanists have dreamed of for a long time and poses an interesting experiment of whether or not we can maintain partially closed streets after lockdown restrictions are lifted. “We’re focused on getting through this moment right now,” explains Russo, “But I do think it’s a good experiment and as we hear about what’s working and what’s not working, we’ll respond accordingly.”
Urbanists like Allison Arieff of SPUR have been really encouraged by what’s happening in Oakland. It shows that we can implement these policies quickly and effectively, and Arieff says that these moments of crisis provide us with an opportunity to rethink our cities. It wouldn’t be the first time that the way we think about our urban landscape has changed in response to a crisis. Central Park in New York City came about partially as a reaction to the cholera epidemics of the 19th century. Or more recently you can look at the ways in which the last recession gave rise to tactical urbanism projects in cities like San Francisco. “Ultimately I think this is a huge indicator of how much more space we could give to the public,” says Arieff, “I’m not going to say that there will be no cars in our post-COVID future, but hopefully people will recognize that it’s nice to have more room and not be worried about a car careening around the corner and killing me.”