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Streets and sidewalks emptied due to coronavirus. Can addressing the pandemic help urban designers reimagine urban mobility?
Installation of the Sunset Park El-Space Pilot at the intersection of 36th Street and Third Avenue. The initiative is a collaboration between the Design Trust for Public Space, the NYC DOT, and various community groups and organizations. Photo: NYCDOT.
Installation of the Sunset Park El-Space Pilot at the intersection of 36th Street and Third Avenue. The initiative is a collaboration between the Design Trust for Public Space, the NYC DOT, and various community groups and organizations. Photo: NYCDOT.

Of all the places that went quiet during the sudden coronavirus quarantine of New York City, the silent streets and sidewalks may be the most unnerving. More than 6,000 miles of roads, from small side streets to broad boulevards, course through the city’s five boroughs, serving as urban arteries of people, vehicles, and commerce. The curbs, lanes, sidewalks, and public spaces that serve as main stages of civic life have rarely been as hushed and desolate.

They’ve also rarely been as full as potential, promise, and possibility.

“The curb is incredibly contested space,” says Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition for Smart Growth America. “It’s always been one of the most valued pieces of city real estate. But today, in the midst of this crisis, there’s a higher tolerance for experimentation. There’s a huge interest in repurposing these spaces to make them flexible and more useful for economic development and small business.”

Today’s unprecedented public health crisis has placed new demands on cities to expand public space and transit access, creating a moment of reflection that transit and urban planning professionals see as potentially transformative. This pause, which has led many cities to quickly open up streets to pedestrians—including New York City’s plan to open 100 miles of street this summer across all five boroughs—shows the speed at which change is possible. “The curb is this incredibly flexible space, yet we typically think everything that happens there is permanent,” says Anne Goodchild, who runs the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, a program that seeks to understand urban delivery, logistics, and transportation. “This moment gives us an opportunity.”

The contemporary understanding of the curb, typically a place for parking and long-term car storage, was already undergoing a titanic shift before the pandemic, in large part because it was getting so crowded. Various interest groups wanted the same stretches of asphalt and concrete to serve multiple goals: Amazon delivery vans; couriers for restaurant delivery services like Grubhub; vehicles for transit network companies, including Uber and Lyft; electric scooters, Bike Share, and other micromobility services; and pedestrian and cycling activists demanding a safer travel option.

Students in the RISE Shore Corps program plant a dunescape at the Rockaways El-Space Pilot. Photo: RISE.
Students in the RISE Shore Corps program plant a dunescape at the Rockaways El-Space Pilot. Photo: RISE.

While the demands of social distancing in the COVID-19 era may have emptied out streets and sidewalks, they’ve paradoxically accelerated these transitions. Older cities such as New York already had narrow sidewalks; the demand for enough space to stay six feet apart has pushed planners to quickly repurpose travel lanes meant for cars, setting off a race to see which planning department can convert space the quickest, and opening up an unprecedented period of experimentation to create ad-hoc public space. “Public space has never been more important than it is today, but it has never been more threatened,” says Matthew Clarke, director of the New York-based non-profit Design Trust for Public Space, pointing out that new challenges with municipal and state budgets will mean there are significant funding gaps to fill if projects are to move forward. Still, there is broad recognition among civic leaders and the public that improvements to public space are now necessary to support public health and small businesses alike.

Any alterations to curbs, streets, and sidewalks will first need to recognize the increasing demand for this contested space to serve the immediate community and multiple constituencies. One source of pressure is the delivery infrastructure, which has become a more dominant source of traffic as consumers try to stay at home, and the need for pick-up and drop-off space for businesses attempting to operate amid changing social distancing requirements. Professor José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studies the e-commerce delivery ecosystem and says it’s easy to blame the increase in delivery traffic on the retailers. But this is really a classic example of a collective action problem that encompasses consumer behavior, municipal policy, and corporate profit-seeking (as is any reallocation of public space, curb or otherwise).

“The curb is incredibly contested space. But today, in the midst of this crisis, there’s a higher tolerance for experimentation." —Emiko Atherton

The e-commerce delivery ecosystem saw rapid growth before the pandemic (holiday delivery traffic alone increases about 5% each year, and truck traffic creates 28% of the nation’s congestion). Since shelter-in-place and quarantine practices became widely adopted in the U.S., Holguín-Veras has seen exceptional growth; many high-income homes have increased e-commerce purchases between 75% and 100% between the first and second quarters of 2020. “When I talk with drivers for UPS, FedEx, and Amazon, they tell me this period is busier than the holiday season,” he says. “What’s obvious today is that supply chains are important, and now people have awareness of what they took for granted. Hopefully, that translates to more enlightened policies.”

Holistic solutions fly in the face of how curbs and parking typically get viewed—as a block-by-block, zero-sum game. Will changes or new regulations slow down traffic or lead to more congestion and parking problems? But curbside policy that increases travel options that don’t involve cars and makes delivery, pick-up, and drop-off more efficient, thereby improving both e-commerce and local business operations, can strengthen the neighborhood fabric.

“How does the public realm support small businesses?” says Clarke. “Part of the issue is realizing that our collective American understanding of public space is pretty limited. We can point to a park or a plaza, but public space is everything from the property line out—the sidewalks, streets, and roughly 40% to 50% of the city. Our design and management of these spaces need to be more assertive.”

A rendering of Opening the Edge, a design concept by the Design Trust's Community Design Team, envisions a vibrant public space at the base of the Lillian Wald Houses on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Image: Design Trust for Public Space.
A rendering of Opening the Edge, a design concept by the Design Trust's Community Design Team, envisions a vibrant public space at the base of the Lillian Wald Houses on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Image: Design Trust for Public Space.

Figuring out how to manage the cost of using the curb is essential, says Regina Clewlow, an analyst and founder of Populus, a transit data consultancy. Traditional cost control, via meters or free parking, should shift to become dynamic—varying prices during different times of the day to steer delivery traffic into certain windows, or pushing up the price of parking to encourage mass transit. Congestion pricing charges, which apply additional road fees to particularly busy times of the day, could also space out traffic in cars and on transit, which would benefit from less crowding. Efficiency isn’t just about saving money; decreasing congestion saves lives and cuts emissions.

There’s also the question of city revenue. Expected budget shortfalls due to the virus’ economic fallout make it more imperative that cities use curbs to raise money and generate taxable economic activity. Smart Growth America found cities have lost roughly 80% to 95% of their typical parking revenue since early March. The short-term reality of limited income, and the long-term trend towards more delivery activity by players like Amazon, suggests a fee for e-commerce delivery is in the public interest, says Benito Perez, a transit official and member of Smart Growth America. Such a plan could be modeled off trials in Chicago that charge fees for Lyft and Uber rides to fund public transit.

Rockwell Group worked with Melba's in Harlem to envision outdoor seating options. Image: Rockwell Group.
Rockwell Group worked with Melba's in Harlem to envision outdoor seating options. Image: Rockwell Group.
The firm has developed five scales of cost-effective interventions, from minimal to more complex, that would allow restaurants to easily customize their own outdoor environments. Image: Rockwell Group.
The firm has developed five scales of cost-effective interventions, from minimal to more complex, that would allow restaurants to easily customize their own outdoor environments. Image: Rockwell Group.

As more traffic—delivery, pedestrian, and otherwise—returns to city streets, advocates want to make sure the disruption caused by coronavirus offers a chance to reorient streets and city policy towards health, safety, and mobility. The moves to rapidly turn over traffic lanes to pedestrians suggests more thoroughfares should be given over to Complete Streets projects, which take away lanes of traffic and reorient the streetscape towards pedestrians and cyclists with more space for walking, parks, and bike lanes. These projects offer needed transportation alternatives today, especially for essential workers who typically rely on public transit, which faces a crisis of dwindling ridership due to safety concerns. “This situation has put into stark contrast who relies on public transit, who’s more exposed to poor transit infrastructure, and where people are more likely to die riding a bike,” says Clewlow. “Good plans will address these issues.”

By focusing on adding car-free transit options now, says Atherton, cities can build long-term transit networks that benefit equity issues in general. Comprehensive bike networks and additional park space add greenspace to areas that lack it, which in turn can help eliminate health disparities between neighborhoods.

According to the Trust for Public Land, adding park space to the streetscape, especially trees, provides needed shade, assists with stormwater drainage, and is proven to boost physical and mental health. It also helps lower barriers to public park access; nearly a third of city residents aren’t within a 10-minute walk of a park. Oakland, California, which unveiled a citywide Slow Streets project in April that covers 10% of city roadways, prioritized neighborhoods that lack park access. “We need to make sure these changes aren’t just adding resources to neighborhoods that already have a large share of them,” Atherton says. “If these projects are done right, people will want them to stay, and you can build political will to make them last.”

“This situation has put into stark contrast who relies on public transit, who’s more exposed to poor transit infrastructure, and where people are more likely to die riding a bike." —Regina Clewlow

Clarke, of the Design Trust for Public Space, has been testing and trialing different ways to activate unused streets and sidewalks in New York City, giving locals the power to improve their neighborhoods, one block at a time. His Under the L project has outlined ways to turn some of the unused space below highway underpasses into parks, and a pilot program with the New York City Housing Authority will test ways to create new park projects outside the entrances to larger housing projects. Clarke is currently working with the city’s small business services on a new initiative to make it easier for small businesses to turn the curb to their advantage, focused on loosening regulations and speeding up permitting so it’s easier to set up street-side seating or new signage, or create delivery and drop-off zones. “We see it not just as having access to the asset—it’s about empowering people to be shapers of their community,” he says of these projects. “The management of these spaces is one of the hardest parts.”

Following discussions with restaurant operators and staff, New York-based Rockwell Group has already reimagined what outdoor dining could look like by designing a system of parts, including modular seating, wash stations, and street fencing to help local restaurants safely and economically expand outward onto the street. If done right, these changes can also help people get back to work and be promoted as ways to build up neighborhoods at a time when we fear the grocery store around the corner going out of business. Increasing sidewalk pickup may be a good start now, but wouldn’t it be better to make it easier for someone to simply walk or bike to the restaurant? More public space—trading traffic lanes for outdoor table spaces—literally provides the space for business in a post-COVID world.

This crisis—of public health, public policy, and the economy—is an inflection point for street design. Architects, designers, and policymakers need to seize the chance to act quickly and shape h w the circulatory system of the city operates in the future.

Patrick Sisson (“Movement Politics,” “Street Smarter”) is a journalist and Chicago expat living in Los Angeles. His writing, which also explores music, art, and technology, has been published by the Verge, Vox, Pitchfork, Curbed, and Wax Poetics. He is the author of This is Chicago, a book about the history of design and designers in Chicago, published in 2015.

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