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COVID-19 quarantine is making America get creative about space. That's great for cities.

Whenever we reach our “new normal” after this pandemic, let’s choose a new path.
Image: The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York
People walk in a closed street in East End Avenue to help that social distancing norms are maintained, during the outbreak of coronavirus in New York May 2, 2020.Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

With many of us working from homeor unemployed — and under coronavirus stay-at-home orders, our recreational and emotional needs are increasingly being met outdoors. During these stressful and uncertain times, people can’t meet for coffee or drinks, so many of us are rediscovering the joy of walking. We may not have many places to go right now, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still want to get out and move.

During these stressful and uncertain times, people can’t meet for coffee or drinks, so many of us are rediscovering the joy of walking.

Here in Tacoma, Washington, where I live, I’ve seen an increasing number of people out walking and biking over the past two months. It’s spring in the Pacific Northwest, and as we emerge from the rain and gray, we’re eager to soak in the warmer weather and fresh air.

However, when we step outside, we’re confronted with narrow sidewalks, nonexistent bike lanes, and streets that push everything except cars to the margins. They don’t provide nearly enough room for the recommended six feet of distance between us. We sidestep into the street or a front yard — or awkwardly turn around — to avoid encounters too close for comfort.

COVID-19 is exposing systemic flaws in many areas of American public life, and a problem with our streets is particularly evident: a noticeable lack of walkable and accessible public spaces. Most modern American streets simply weren’t made for walking — or cycling, or rolling a stroller or wheelchair for that matter. This limits the room we have to walk safely during this pandemic, but many cities are doing something to help address this public health challenge.

In response to COVID-19, cities in the U.S. and around the world are closing streets to cars and opening them up for walking and biking — like Seattle’s “Stay Healthy Streets,” Oakland’s “Slow Streets” and ambitious efforts in Milan. In Seattle, the program is actually expanding, and some street expansions and closures will become permanent.

These are positive, immediate steps that just about any city can take now. But will this be a passing fad, only for this time of crisis? What will we choose to do with our streets after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided?

Most Americans aren’t going car-free anytime soon — but we can start to reduce our reliance on cars. We will still need street space to serve transit, deliveries, emergency services, and, yes, private vehicles for certain tasks. But let’s throw out the 1950s traffic engineering handbook and turn our streets into spaces that are safe and enjoyable to walk in and empower us to live more fully.

Streets in the U.S. became inhospitable to walking and biking over multiple generations. Take jaywalking for example. Jaywalking is an invented crime, conceived in the 1920s by automobile manufacturers and motorist groups who lobbied American governments to reprioritize street space for driving. We’ve so favored cars in our cities today, that if you see someone walking in the middle of the street, you’d probably think they’re weird or reckless.

Unfortunately, for many Americans, our mobility is wholly dependent on cars, because of how cities and neighborhoods have been reshaped around them. For most of us, we need to drive to get groceries, go to work, pick up the kids, or go out to eat. That’s certainly true in my area. That’s why, with COVID-19 greatly reducing our movement and disrupting our routines, so many of us are rediscovering the environments closest to us — the ones we can walk to.

But we need to confront the way our streets function and whom they serve, especially for our neighbors who can’t drive.

But we need to confront the way our streets function and whom they serve, especially for our neighbors who can’t drive. Think about someone who is elderly, blind or uses a wheelchair. For them — even before this pandemic — wide, level sidewalks, curb ramps and safe crosswalks were crucial for independence. If the sidewalks in your neighborhood are too narrow, haven’t been repaired in years, or simply don’t exist, then it becomes that much harder for someone with a disability to live independently and fully participate in community life — let alone do so while social distancing. For those in our communities at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, our inadequate walking infrastructure only further isolates them inside their homes.

Walkability should be viewed as a social good. Walkable neighborhoods help us access services, connect with people and improve our health. Streets that prioritize walking and rolling are not only more equitable and just, but safer for our friends and families. These are our streets. We may have surrendered them to cars, but we can start taking them back.

Moving forward, streets must prioritize everyone’s safety and dignity, rather than favoring the movement of vehicles above all else. Driving damages the environment, harms our mental and physical health, and even reduces our empathy for people around us. Our communities, cities and planet can’t endure the continued dominance of the car.

We must also ensure that walkability isn’t only enjoyed in the densest urban areas — remaining a luxury simply for those who can afford the high cost of living in places like Manhattan or San Francisco. This requires massive investment now in pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure across the country.

It will take many years and conscious effort to make our cities more walkable and accessible, but here are some positive steps we can take:

  • Repair broken sidewalks and install missing curb ramps
  • Widen sidewalks or build new ones where they don’t exist
  • Close certain streets to vehicles permanently and rebuild them for walking, biking and expanded green space
  • Increase construction of affordable housing in communities that are already walkable
  • Increase funding for transit, walking and biking, especially in suburban communities that currently have few options other than driving.

COVID-19 has exposed that our cities’ relationship with walking has been broken for a long time. Whenever we reach our “new normal” after this pandemic, let’s choose a new path and reclaim our streets for walking.