The many benefits to integrating walking and biking facilities into communities have been established in the planning and land use fields. These benefits include improved mental and physical health, equitable access to jobs and services, and reduced traffic and pollution. Public support and new infrastructure for active transportation modes, namely walking and biking, have increased in North America.

However, in most of the United States and Canada, much is left to be desired in terms of equitable access to safe, high-quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

High-quality active transportation infrastructure, such as sidewalks and bike lanes, has historically been afforded most often to more affluent, white communities. This inequitable distribution of facilities produces significant effects on traditionally underserved populations, including limiting access to social and economic opportunities, exacerbating health inequities, and higher rates of pedestrian injury or death. Equitable transportation planning—which ensures that traditionally underserved populations that are more reliant on active modes of transportation are provided affordable, safe, and reliable active transportation infrastructure to meet their needs—is integral in improving these effects.

Physical distancing and restriction of travel were some of the earliest and most effective and widespread strategies enacted worldwide to control the transmission of COVID-19. Roads emptied of typical automobile traffic, and many were used in new ways to support the needs of communities. Cities used roadways to create space for walking and bicycling, outdoor commerce, and queuing for essential services such as grocery stores and markets. Miles driven and traffic delays were reduced by an estimated 50 percent during the height of the stay-at-home orders in spring 2020. The implementation of these programs—many of which favored active transportation—moving abnormally quickly to respond to an increased demand for walking and biking in local areas due to COVID-19 lockdowns, travel restrictions, and closure of many businesses.

Infrastructure Interventions

In four North American cities—Washington, D.C.; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Oakland, California: and Halifax, Nova Scotia—municipal planners making decisions related to active transportation worked fast to expand sidewalks, implement outdoor dining, and slow streets. These cities represent a variety of sizes and locations around North America and had different approaches to reallocating street space during the pandemic. Reflections from these quickly implemented projects show the importance of understanding community needs and equitably planning programs when making interventions to create active transportation infrastructure.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Main intervention: Franklin Street multicomponent street space reallocation for commerce.

Expanded SidewalExpanded Sidewalk on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Town of Chapel Hill/Sarah Poulton)k on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Town of Chapel Hill/Sarah Poulton)

An expanded sidewalk on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Town of Chapel Hill/Sarah Poulton)

Chapel Hill’s main commercial street, Franklin Street, was transformed using barriers and bollards to increase sidewalk capacity for outdoor business operations and to allow pedestrians to comply with physical distancing recommendations. Parking and loading zones were moved one lane toward the center, reducing the travel lanes to one lane in each direction.

Town transportation planning and downtown event staff were interested in closing lanes but were told by town officials that it was financially infeasible. However, a community petition supporting the closure led the town council to pass an ordinance to allow the street space reallocation. The project was implemented in July 2020 and is staying in place until a previously planned roadway restriping project is executed in summer 2022.

Chapel Hill also installed several miles of temporary in-road multiuse paths in some residential areas, delineated with tape and traffic cones, to allow residents more space for walking and biking.

Washington, D.C.

Main intervention: D.C. Streateries—street space and non–street space reallocations for commerce.

D.C. Streateries in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Northwest D.C.. (Joe in DC/Flickr)

D.C. Streateries in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Northwest D.C.. (Joe in DC/Flickr)

Washington, D.C.’s “Streateries” program, composed of reallocations of both street space and non–street space (sidewalks and alleys), was initiated by a recommendation from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s COVID-19 reopening committee. D.C.’s wide rights-of-way, along with dramatic traffic reductions, provided space to safely support outdoor dining. D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) staff adapted an existing parklet program to enable the streateries, and provided grants and materials for implementation to restaurant owners. Streets were purposefully not closed entirely, to avoid encouraging crowding while physical distancing measures were in place. DDOT staff worked with local business improvement districts (BIDs) and Main Street programs to reach restaurants and worked with city agencies, such as the Department of Health, to update regulations for outdoor dining.

D.C. also partially closed some streets and reallocated street space in other areas to support active mobility (D.C. Slow Streets).

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Main intervention: Halifax Slow Streets—partial street closures for active mobility.

Halifax modified Slow Street setup. (Halifax Regional Municipality)

Halifax modified Slow Street setup. (Halifax Regional Municipality)

Halifax’s Slow Streets program was implemented to reduce traffic and speed on local streets to create space for walking, rolling, and cycling. The city implemented this through partial street closures, designating 10 miles (16 km) of streets in the Regional Center for local traffic only to prioritize the spaces for active transportation.

The city created a task force in April 2020 to determine how to respond to COVID-19 in terms of mobility and public spaces. The locations for the intervention were based on an existing but not yet implemented plan for a cycling network.

Other mobility responses in Halifax include fast-tracking the implementation of a street improvement plan, reallocating curb space for active mobility, and closing streets and reallocating street and non–street space for commerce.

Oakland, California

Main intervention: Oakland Slow Streets and Slow Streets: Essential Places—intersection improvements and partial street closures for active mobility.

Early in the pandemic, Oakland rolled out a massive “Slow Streets” program, designating 21.4 miles (34.4 km) of streets for local traffic only, using temporary barricades and signs to create space for physically distant walking, biking, and other physical activity.

Only months before the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of high-profile crashes had occurred, including a pedestrian fatality who was a mother picking up her child from school. This led to a call for more traffic safety measures, particularly in East Oakland, where a disproportionate number of pedestrian fatalities had happened. When the Oakland mayor’s office was looking for a way to respond to changing mobility needs brought on by the pandemic, staff saw it as an opportunity to address these documented pedestrian safety concerns. Oakland had just finalized its Bike Plan with an intensive community engagement process. So, the city decided to use the planned neighborhood bikeways identified in the Bike Plan as the locations for Slow Streets.

Feedback from the first phase of the program led to the creation of a new part of the Slow Streets program, Essential Places. Essential Places also used temporary materials to provide safer crossings and access to essential services, such as grocery stores, public food distribution sites, and COVID-19 test sites. To determine locations, access to essential services was overlayed with the city’s High Injury Network and highest-priority neighborhoods based on race and income. Fifteen Essential Places were added between May and July 2020.

Takeaways for More Equitable Engagement and Implementation of Interventions

Planners from these four cities were interviewed about the approaches taken to quickly create infrastructure that better supported the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and local businesses during the height of the pandemic. In most cases, traditional community engagement methods were bypassed in an effort to act quickly on project implementation; this created issues with equity of the interventions for communities that are traditionally underserved.

Overall, the interviewees acknowledged the importance of community engagement but felt they did their best in the time-constrained situation they were in with pressure to act fast; takeaways and reflections from these initial projects and programs illuminate how critical it is to center social equity into decision-making for projects that prioritize active transportation.

  • Bypassing traditional community engagement drew criticism and prompted more equitable strategies. None of the four cities did a standard community engagement process due to the desire to act quickly. However, some used existing plans; others relied on elected officials’ views as proxies for community engagement. This led to criticisms about how this affected historically underserved populations, particularly Black and indigenous communities and those populated by and people of color (BIPOC).

In Chapel Hill, no specific community engagement was conducted for the Franklin Street space reallocation since town staff felt as though a previous, similar engagement process for a permanent restriping of the road, the community petition, town council’s approval, and continuously checking in with business owners was sufficient. There were criticisms of the transformation in a local paper about a lack of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility due to some businesses using the sidewalk; however, town staff felt that they had considered these limitations and had to balance accessibility and local restaurant survival.

In D.C., the restaurants that were part of a BID or Main Street program, generally located in more affluent areas of the city, were at an advantage in this program. In addition, there was also a need for these restaurants’ surrounding physical environment to fit certain constraints, such as wider sidewalks. Anacostia, a historically Black neighborhood, has streets that were not redeveloped like the rest of the city’s streets due to a long history of disinvestment by the D.C. government, which made streateries more challenging to implement there. The city is now focused on strategies to expand the opportunities for streateries in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The city of Halifax did not conduct additional community engagement for the Slow Streets program, feeling that the prior engagement efforts were sufficient, and the temporary nature of the program would allow the city to adapt based on public reactions. However, members of the staff did know that they needed to speak with marginalized communities before implementing Slow Streets in their neighborhood. This conversation led to the implementation in one African-Nova Scotian neighborhood, where there was an existing relationship with the city and virtual engagement was successful. Conversely, this did not work in a different African-Nova Scotian neighborhood that lacked this existing relationship and efforts to build trust virtually failed. Later, the city collected feedback from the public and local organizations for a second rollout and adapted the program to better meet the needs of residents. An interim report from the program recommended making equitable distribution a main focus of future interventions, particularly areas that rely on nonvehicular modes of travel most. Now, the city is focusing on establishing relationships with Nova Scotian communities of color and is planning a Slow Streets program focused specifically on communities that rely on transit, biking, and walking.

In Oakland, the initial Slow Streets program faced intense pushback. After hearing the swift, negative reaction from residents, particularly from Black residents of East Oakland, the city engaged with community leaders and organizations to discuss their views. One interviewee reflected on how the residents were emotional and clearly felt hurt and betrayed over a lack of inclusion in the process, even though staff felt as though the engagement that they had conducted on the Bike Plan was sufficient. The interviewees felt as though the start of these talks was venting but eventually moved into a problem-solving space. They determined that the East Oakland community was made up of many essential workers, and that the idea of Slow Streets for exercise and recreation did not resonate. The community was more interested in traffic calming than recreation.

This led to the creation of Slow Streets: Essential Places to particularly serve the largely BIPOC East Oakland community.

Most cities tried to course-correct during implementation in response to concerns, including Oakland engaging with East Oakland to create Essential Places and bringing in a community artist. In addition, Chapel Hill staff realized the “quick win” town-owned streets that were eligible for temporary multiuse paths were in affluent, majority-white neighborhoods, which did not allow the state-owned roads with higher Black populations to benefit from the program. This prompted town staff to look for more creative, community-driven solutions in lower-resourced neighborhoods. 

  • Setting a precedent for quick action. The interviewees thought that this experience showed the speed at which active transportation and infrastructure programs can be implemented, with some reductions in regulatory barriers. These interventions will provide a precedent for change. This is particularly true for more risk-averse stakeholders, such as traffic engineers and municipal attorneys. Faster implementation after more authentic community engagement, in which the public is able to react to something tangible on the street, could revolutionize the relationship between communities and local government and push active transportation forward to build healthier communities. Pilot testing, where people can experience the changes and suggest adjustments, may garner more authentic feedback and build trust with communities if the interventions are actually implemented in a reasonable time period. However, multiple cities found that temporary materials still need to be robust. Lightweight materials that are easily moved or damaged by the public often cause more negative reactions from the public, since they can quickly turn from infrastructure to trash, and thus reinforce perceptions of neglect and disinvestment by the city.
  • Strategic communication is key. The projects in these four cities show that the methods by which planners receive feedback and communicate the goals of transportation projects must be well thought out. Community engagement is one way to inform and prepare the community for projects, but that was missed in most of these cases. This led to confusion among residents about the goals of programs. For example, East Oakland residents found the stay-at-home order in conflict with the message of Slow Streets. Most cities mentioned that to get the word out for these programs, they posted information on their websites, the mayors publicly announced the programs, and press releases were published. This is not enough to reach the general public. Interrogating and questioning who is providing feedback and how to measure success of the projects is also important. Solely relying on voluntary online surveys and community meetings is not reaching the people necessary to make decisions. Oakland found creative ways, such as short text surveys advertising where infrastructure is located and social media content, to evaluate programs. To understand who is giving feedback and how representative the feedback is, it is also important to track demographic data such as race, income level, ability, and neighborhood.

Washington, D.C., realized that its main method of communicating to restaurants about the Streateries program, through BIDs and Main Street organizations, was leaving out restaurants that were not in the wealthier neighborhoods with these organizations. Moving forward, program staff is committed to reaching out to businesses more equitably.

The lessons learned from the pandemic will undoubtedly change how active transportation planning is conducted in the future. It is clear that many municipalities are interested in faster, cheaper ways to adapt their streets to encourage active transportation and are reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic for lessons to do that. Transportation planning firms are developing expertise in the subject, so municipalities should think about partnering with experts on these adaptations to find a good fit for their own streets. In addition, local governments—particularly transportation planning departments—should collaborate with economic development professionals and local business owners to see how streets can be adapted to fit multiple goals. The question that lingers over this experience is how to implement an active transportation program quickly and equitably, avoiding a traditional, stale community-engagement process while at the same time not using a top-down approach. These case studies suggest that acting quickly in a way that facilitates in situ community engagement and adaption could be one solution. This may be a “wicked problem,” but learning from cities’ responses to COVID-19 gives us a good place to start interrogating that problem.

EMMA STOCKTON is a transportation analyst with Cambridge Systematics.