Policy

Cities Are Reclaiming Streets for People and It’s Working

Artwork by Justin Kohout, Illustrator at Spin

As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic came into focus in March, many local governments, residents, and activists immediately saw the need for more public open space. Families needed healthy places to exercise, play, and move about their communities while still maintaining safe, physical distancing protocols. A movement of slow and shared streets swept the country, with cities closing streets to all or most car traffic.

“Cities have limited space, and how it is allocated is tremendously important for people — and this has become even more critical due to Covid-19,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the National League of Cities.

“We need more public space, and closing streets to vehicles opens up opportunities for a more human-centered approach to the city. The pandemic has reinforced the need to give people space to enjoy a meal at an outdoor restaurant or walk, bike, and scoot with sufficient physical distance,” he said.

Now that we are a few months into this movement, we took a look at our data to see how slow and shared streets have impacted our riders in a few cities.

San Francisco

In our hometown of San Francisco, SFMTA launched the city’s slow streets program in April. We took a look at two stretches — Page Street between Stanyan and Gough St; and JFK Jr Drive between Kezar Drive and Transverse Drive. On Page Street, in the first two weeks in March (prior to slow streets implementation) people took just over 600 rides which connected with the stretch later designated as a slow street. Fast forward to the first two weeks in August, when the slow street designation was well established, and the number of rides jumped to almost 1,000. This was despite a decrease in overall rides citywide compared to the March timeframe. The increase in rides on JFK Jr. Drive was similar — spiking from about 80 rides in the first half of March prior to its closure to cars, to more than 300 over the first two weeks of August.

Populus analysis of Spin scooter trips in San Francisco before and after slow streets implementation. Slow-street sections of JFK Jr Drive (left) and Page Street (right) are highlighted in red.

This trend is not limited to pandemic-related shared and open streets, either. If you build it — or in this case, close it — they will come. When San Francisco officially removed private cars from Market Street on January 29, the results were predictably positive: bike ridership was up 20 percent by early March, and scooter ridership was up 30 percent, according to a March 5 blogpost and analysis by Populus.

Washington, D.C.

We saw similar trends in Washington, D.C. where we looked at ridership on 19th Street NW between Dupont Circle and Biltmore Street; and 12th Street NE between East Capitol Street and K Street. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the city’s slow streets initiative in June. Prior to slow streets being implemented, we saw about 400 rides along at least part of 19th Street where through traffic was restricted. Comparing data from the first two weeks of August when the slow street was already well established, that number more than doubled to 961 rides. Along the stretch of 12th Street we looked at, we saw rides increase by more than 30 percent in August when compared to March, prior to the slow street implementation.

Denver

Denverites take the streets for exercise and essential travel. The City’s open and shared streets program gives them the room to do it safely. Photo courtesy of the Denver Streets Partnership.

In May, we looked at one of the initial success stories of the recent slow- and safe-streets movement: Denver. Using a survey and tools Spin provided through our Mobility Data for Safer Streets program, the Denver Streets Partnership measured the incredible popularity of the city’s slow streets. People were using them in droves for walking, biking, and scooting (in one case, we saw a nearly 1,400 percent increase in Spin ridership!). And, Denverites wanted to make them a permanent fixture of the community.

We revisited our Denver data looking at the first two weeks in May for slow streets established on 16th Avenue between Lincoln and City Park Esplanade, and 11th Avenue between Lincoln and Humboldt. In that time we found that rides taken on at least part of these streets amounted to more than 18 percent of overall trips in the city.

Time and again studies show that when it comes to getting people out of their cars and onto more sustainable modes of transportation, infrastructure is key. People need to feel safe and comfortable when they are riding bikes, scooters, or any other human-scaled mode.

“All over the world, cities were once retrofitted to accommodate cars — it’s time to turn this model on its head — and now it is time to retrofit cities for people,” Rainwater said.

To get a better understanding of how Spin riders in the above three cities were experiencing slow/shared streets, we sent out a survey. We received just over 150 responses. Here’s what we found:

  • 62 percent of our riders said they scoot at least weekly on slow/shared streets: 21.5 percent reported they scoot daily while 40.5 percent said weekly. And, 41 percent say they have taken more scooter trips because of slow/shared streets.
  • A whopping 79 percent said they walk at least weekly on these particular streets. More than half of them — 55 percent — walk these streets daily and 24 percent said weekly.
  • Nearly 60 percent say their cities’ slow/shared streets program made them feel safer walking, biking or riding a scooter.

Our riders also said that their cities’ shared or slow streets programs changed their travel patterns, most significantly around recreational trips, but also for trips for essential services and for their commutes:

From Spin’s survey to riders in the above three cities.

It’s clear that these programs are encouraging people to experience their streets in different — and more sustainable — ways. Encouraging open and shared streets through infrastructure improvements has been fundamental to Spin’s mission for years.

Will this move toward people-oriented shared and open streets continue post pandemic? We certainly hope so.

Populus and Josh Johnson, public policy manager for Spin, contributed to this story.

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