While we collectively yearn for a return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy, there are some changes we’ve made to survive this pandemic we may want to keep. Among them is the use of our shared and public spaces. In a struggle to survive, for example, restaurants have created outdoor seating spaces on sidewalks and in roadways.
Just a few weeks ago, Pike Place Market announced the availability of pop-up restaurants on its regularly vehicle-choked cobblestone streets. Everyone I’ve talked to about this has had the same response: Why did it take so long?! We’re not alone in asking this question.
New York has re-purposed more than 70 miles of surface streets to dining, and expanded cycling and pedestrian corridors, as restaurants have struggled to remain open and residents have sought safer modes of transportation. In Queens, 34th Street has been transformed into a pedestrian promenade that has breathed new life into a neighborhood previously bereft of the kind of connective tissue public spaces engender. It’s understandable that many New Yorkers don’t want to give back these newfound gains. Although Seattle is not the same as New York, we are both cities struggling to address the myriad demands stemming from booming and expanding downtown cores.
These temporary changes to reducing vehicle driving and parking capacity on streets have not been universally welcomed. As essential workers struggle to get to work amid reduced transit schedules and capacities, many have resorted to private vehicles. Indeed, many employers have waived parking charges to help get these employees where they need to go. Additionally, local business owners have expressed concern about losing business with the elimination of on-street parking for bike lanes.
So it seems absurd to some to suggest relinquishing a single yard of asphalt that could be used for driving and parking. But there are economic, environmental and equity reasons to make changes that support making Seattle a more livable city by rethinking our use of pavement. In May, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that 20 miles of residential streets initially closed to provide for social distancing will now remain permanently closed to through traffic to allow for continued pedestrian and bicycle use.
In a study of seven street improvement projects in four cities, the National Institute for Transportation and Communities at Portland State University found that upgraded active transportation infrastructure actually contributes to greater revenue for businesses. This isn’t a new concept. In 1962, as more cars moved into Copenhagen’s City center, the city dedicated Strøget as a pedestrian corridor that remains one of the longest in Europe — and one of the highest grossing and most prosperous streets in the world with its shops, restaurants and constant flow of patrons.
Furthermore, we are reminded by the current wildfire crisis that the climate concerns we had pre-pandemic are not going away. We cannot afford to reverse the progress we’ve made. One need only look at other parts of the country where traffic levels are approaching pre-pandemic levels to anticipate that absent our intention and action, the problem is only going to get worse here in Seattle.
King County’s accelerated Climate Plan announced by Executive Dow Constantine a few weeks ago is a welcome step in the right direction. But it’s not enough. Major employers are in an important position to help drive necessary change as well to ensure environmental equity for all, not just those among us with the luxury of telecommuting.
But perhaps the most compelling argument to rethink our shared public spaces during a time that may seem inopportune is that we have rediscovered the importance of community. We have replaced much of our drive-by existence with walks. We have met our neighbors again. We have fallen in love with dining outdoors. We have done this by taking back our streets, quite literally.
And now it is time to keep them and to make Seattle a more livable city. How? By taking this time to rededicate ourselves to expanding shared spaces that enhance our communities, by continuing to invest in our public transit system, including Park & Rides, shared mobility, bike-pedestrian infrastructure, and by choosing to use these modes. In this way, we can create more access not less, more sustainability not less, and more economic prosperity not less.