The Natural Experiment

No Cars

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.

Oakland will ban cars from 74 miles, or about 10%, of its streets. (City of Oakland)

“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.”



Producers Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, and Joe Rosenberg spoke with Michelle Fournet, an acoustic ecologist at Cornell; Raghu Karnad, writer for the New Yorker; Sarath Guttikunda, Director of Urban Emissions; Erin Westgate, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Florida; Bernice Hausman, Chair of the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine; Ryan Russo, Director of the Oakland Department of Transportation; Allison Arieff of SPUR.

  1. John Milton

    “A sable cloud turns forth its silver lining on the night.”

    First, thank you for the episode. I enjoyed it very much. But my neuroticism compels me…

    I understand the desire to avoid aggrandizing anything about the pandemic, but man it bugs the hell out of me that the phrase silver lining has become a virtual persona non grata in the language of the day. It’s well-intentioned, but semantically misguided, conflating the meaning of the phrase with something more akin to blessing in disguise. The key here is that claiming a silver lining entails no transmutation or elevation of the central object.

    It would be repugnant to describe covid-19 as a blessing in disguise, obviously. But it is entirely appropriate and not at all insensitive to call the oceanic silence for the whales in Glacier Bay or the relatively clean air in India’s cities a silver lining to covid-19, or more precisely to the shelter-in-place response to cover-19. That’s precisely what those things are and it does not glorify the disease to say so.

  2. Carol Edwards

    Hoping there will be a follow up story on the humpback whale study
    I enjoy this podcast so much!

  3. Joseph Gallagher

    Just after listening to this podcast, I saw this article about a leading anti-vacer in a video describing COVID-19 as a corrupt scheme / hoax being perpetrated on the world. Just as described, many are doubling down on their anti-science, conspiracy laden beliefs.
    The “Plandemic” Video Has Exploded Online — And It Is Filled With Falsehoods
    Love 99%!!!

  4. Sean Redmond

    Surely, boredom is being obliged to do something don’t want to do or, looked at another way, having nothing to do that you want to do.

  5. April

    Anything over 300 on the air quality scale is dangerous. We’ve had 2 years in the last 4 that have had that level in Spokane WA. I have a friend that lived in Indonesia and she said 900 is like sticking your face in the smoke from a campfire.

  6. Nic

    Very interesting episode!

    However, as someone who visited Beijing in 2008 and then lived there full time from 2009 until 2018, this power-of-the-people conception of improvements in air quality is 99% false. The story gives the impression that the glimpse of blue during the Olympics led to widespread pressure from citizens and subsequent policy changes to address air pollution.

    In reality, the government continued to publicly deny air pollution readings in Beijing until the heavily polluted winter of 2013. Between the Olympics and that moment (about 4.5 years), there were no significant changes in air quality or how most people dealt with “the fog”. It’s quite possible that air pollution actually got worse due to increasing electricity consumption, non-stop construction and the ever growing appetite for cars. Until 2013, air purifiers were outrageously expensive and almost exclusively imported machines owned primarily by expats. Proper masks on polluted days were also something you pretty much only saw on expats. Expats, it should be noted, make up an incredibly small fraction of the city’s population. Based on my own experiences, I had the feeling that the overwhelming majority of Beijing citizens didn’t have a clear conception of the pollution problem.

    But after that admission by the government in the winter of 2013, all of a sudden air filters were sold out across the city and, much like the current coronavirus situation, N95 masks immediately became rare and coveted jewels. Despite the public’s awareness at that point, it was probably another 2 or 3 years after that until significant and sustained improvements in air quality came about.

    The whole thing, and I think a large number of experts on Chinese policy would agree, is more of a numbers game than a reaction to public opinion. The government supported the continuation of horrendous pollution because those tiny air particles represented cheap economic growth. When the drawbacks (health problems, decreased productivity, poor international image) started to outweigh the economic benefits, then strong measures were taken to get to the point where Beijing is today.

    India might end up being a different story after this current streak of blue skies because of obvious differences with China in terms of governance. But anyway, the story of Beijing as it was portrayed in the episode, even though it makes the episode tidier, felt quite inaccurate to me and I thought that I should offer this more nuanced version from someone who lived through it.

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