How to Quickly Open Up Streets for Safer Walking, Rolling and Cycling
Communities around the world are quickly opening up space for walking, cycling and rolling by temporarily reallocating underused street space during the pandemic. This can help essential workers get to their jobs, people picking up essential supplies and people delivery food or essential supplies via bicycle or foot.
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So, how are cities doing it? Here’s a quick primer covering barriers (types, placement), signs, deployment, and monitoring.
When it comes to barriers, don’t overthink it. This is not a time to be overly concerned with maintenance or aesthetics or take on time-intensive activities, like filling barricades with sand or water, transporting cement blocks, or moving and filling planters. Instead you’ll want barriers that are easily transportable but substantial enough to be legible by all street users. Any form of orange/reflective traffic barricade is a good option and may provide scaffolding for associated signage.
Other options include anything stackable or foldable: traffic barrels, cones, whatever is on hand at your city’s Public Works warehouse and commonly deployed by the city for construction detours or special events. Trust that citizens have internalized these elements as signifiers of slow travel and will adjust behavior accordingly.
If your city is short on supplies, consider renting from a local contractor or supplier, as most could really use the income at this time.
Placement of barricades will vary depending on the intervention but should follow normal standards. For example, cones or traffic barrels should be placed a maximum of 15 feet apart along the edge of a bikeway to deter vehicular entry.
Perhaps less obvious is how to effectively filter local streets. Some cities are using barricades as diverters, blocking access to one direction of thru traffic, while those with wider streets are placing them on the center line, forcing motorists to carefully navigate around them, if at all.
Another option is to align cones or barricades diagonally across a four-legged intersection, forcing right or left turns for vehicles every few blocks. This allows people walking, cycling, jogging etc. through movement but keeps vehicular traffic to a minimum. Spacing can ensure emergency vehicle access or the use of mountable cones can simply be driven over in an emergency.
For full closures, barricades need to be spaced so as to limit incursion from motor vehicles, save for emergency responders, and should ideally be paired with advanced warning signs. Speaking of which..
Signing techniques for temporary street interventions vary. Cities like Burlington, Vt. are utilizing everything from bespoke coroplast signs, to formal retroreflective MUTCD signs, to variable digital message boards. All of the above can be used in various ways to communicate new patterns to the traveling public. Given that the city re-tooled 25% of their city streets to support physical distancing, this “kitchen-sink” approach was probably crucial to achieving scale.
Temporary traffic control signs that are often used in advance of and within construction zones are having a moment. Such signs are often lightweight and mounted on collapsible stands, making them easy to transport and adjustable in the field. If such signs are not available, work with a local printer to create MUTCD-compliant coroplast signs that can be hung with zip ties or affixed to barricades.
Beyond sign type one should consider scale: Motorists can’t read small coroplast signs placed along the sidewalk planting strip, just as active travelers don’t require over-sized flashing message boards to encourage them to use an open street. If you are promoting physical distancing or opening streets, make sure all users receive the message at an appropriate scale.
Finally, signs are important but not nearly as important as physically limiting thru traffic. When traffic volumes drop significantly human nature will take over – even without temporary physical distancing measures in place, people across the globe are jogging or walking in streets, an activity that weeks ago would have been a deadly endeavor. If this is happening in your city, it’s likely a sign (pun intended) that more distancing measures are needed, not less.
Deployment is primarily being led city public works crews. Of course staff availability is challenging and varies from city to city, week-to-week, and even day-to-day. For those employees who are available, know that undertaking these interventions are a muscle that can be flexed with relative ease, as such measures are similar to installing temporary roadway construction or large special events.
Most cities do not have the capacity to check these interventions daily, nor is it an appropriate use of police resources. Instead, leaders should strongly consider leveraging crossing guards, block associations, Business Improvement Associations s or other local non-profits/groups to monitor and manage small adjustments in the field. Is a barricade knocked over? Pick it up. Was a cone moved off the street? Put it back. These basic stewardship activities are not technical tasks and can be managed by citizens, effectively helping city leaders focus limited resources where they are needed most.
If you’re a resident benefiting from increased space please take the time before you engage in essential travel or daily exercise to thank your political leaders and city staff. They are proactively and pragmatically using low-cost, proven measures to create more public space that supports your physical and mental health. With luck, they’ll continue to provide such spaces long after the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
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