Rethinking Sidewalks and Streets in the Midst of COVID-19

April 27, 2020 - (7 min read)

Adjusting During COVID-19

With millions of Americans now working from home right now, roads have shifted from being a means to get to and from work to spaces for residents to exercise and get to the grocery store. In the long list of changes caused by COVID-19, how residents move around their cities and towns has been one of the most pronounced shifts. The congestion once caused by commuting has all but disappeared in the midst of the pandemic, but cities are facing a new demand from their residents: creating safe spaces for residents to walk, run, bike, and get around while maintaining social distancing.

Traditional sidewalks are between three and five feet in width, which doesn’t allow for the recommended six feet of distance that the Center for Disease Control recommends. Shared use paths, which are often eight or ten feet wide, can also quickly reach capacity for people maintaining social distance. Cities are responding to requests to create spaces for the increased number of people who are walking and biking while providing proper social distance.

Cities have responded to residents’ concerns by rethinking how we use public space right now, including roads traditionally reserved for cars. Some of the actions cities are taking include:

  • Closing streets to private vehicles to allow more space for biking and walking.
  • Adding bike lanes or converting vehicle lanes to bike lanes.
  • Making city bikeshare programs free to essential workers or all residents.
  • Removing crosswalk beg buttons to reduce contact spread of the virus and prioritize pedestrians

The shift from car-focused to pedestrian-focused spaces looks a bit different in every city. Here are some examples of recent changes across American cities:

  • Oakland, CA introduced an extension of the Oakland Slow Streets program that closed 74 miles, or 10%, of the city streets to cars other than emergency vehicles and residents, creating more space for pedestrians and bikers.
  • Philadelphia, PA closed over 3.5 miles of MLK drive, which runs along the Schuykill River, to cars on March 20th. The city has closed the street in the past to create a pedestrian zone one day a week during the month of August.
  • In Duluth, MN, the city has closed three park roads to cars to make them exclusively available for pedestrians, bikers, and snowmobilers (yes – they still have snow!). The parks were chosen based on their proximity to residents with equity in mind, to ensure all residents have access to outdoor spaces where they can maintain proper social distance.
  • Charleston, SC’s Department of Traffic and Transportation automated pedestrian walk signals at crosswalks so that residents do not need to push the beg buttons. The city is also posting s,igns around crosswalks to let residents know and discourage them from touching the buttons.
  • New York City saw a 67% surge in ridership of the city bike share in the first two weeks of March. The city has responded by creating a number of temporary bike lanes around the city so that residents can safely navigate the streets.

Where to Start

For cities considering where to close streets and provide space for people to get outside while maintaining social distance during COVID-19, a great first place to look would be past Open Streets events. According to the League of American Bicyclists 2018 Benchmarking Report on Bicycling and Walking, 43 of the 50 largest cities in the United States have Open Streets events. In an Open Streets event, a street is closed for motor vehicle traffic and opened to people. These events are not exclusive to big cities either. Many small- and mid-sized cities also have open street events or pedestrian zones (see NLC’s pedestrian zones report).

Using past experiences, the city can know how traffic might be impacted by a closure, the material needs for the street closure, and how residents and businesses along the route might respond. All of this should ease the administrative burden of the street closure in a time when resources may be stretched thin. One of the first streets we saw closed to provide space for physical distance was MLK Drive in Philadelphia, a street seasonally closed on weekends to provide Open Streets.

One major difference from a normal Open Streets event will be tone and physical spacing. Open Streets events thrive on energy, spontaneous or planned programming, and the ability of people to interact. In this time of the coronavirus, people need to get out energy but must also maintain physical distance. Encouraging a more regular flow of people, such as making the route one-way, or posting reminders about keeping physical distance may help.

Federal Support for Local Street and Sidewalk Work

If cities want to make more permanent investments to improve the ability of people to bike and walk while maintaining a safe distance, there are over 3,800 project examples in the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Alternatives program. The Transportation Alternatives (TA) program provides $850 million each year for projects that improve biking, walking, trails, and other infrastructure for physical activity.

The Transportation Alternatives program is structured as a competitive grant program with cities, transit agencies, school districts, or other eligible entities creating proposals. While the specifics of each state’s program may impact how many get funded, they represent a developed waiting list of projects that cities can quickly act on.

Federal funding for investments in biking and walking spaces has also come from other competitive USDOT programs. In Indianapolis, the Cultural Trail was made possible by TIGER program funding, a popular competitive grant program administered by USDOT and now referred to as BUILD. In Greenville, South Carolina the Swamp Rabbit Trail was made possible with Recreational Trails Program funding. Federal funding can be used for smaller projects, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, ADA ramps, and other improvements.

If your city is looking to create great spaces for people to bike and walk while maintaining a safe distance, you can also look toward park plans, bicycle and pedestrian master plans, American Disabilities Act transition plans for sidewalk and transit networks, school site improvement plans, transit access plans, and roads that have older auto-oriented designs, such as four lanes with no center turn lane.

Tell Us What Works for Your City

As your city navigates this new COVID-19 situation, now could be a good time to take action to build networks and provide space – for public health now through physical distancing, and public health in the future through increased physical activity and reduced traffic deaths. Whether you’re a small city like Duluth closing park roads or a large city like New York creating miles of bike lanes, every city’s solution will look a bit different and reflect the needs of its residents. Let us know what works best for your city by emailing Brenna Rivett at

About the authors:


 Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.




Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.





Ken McLeod is the Policy Director for the League of American Bicyclists. He leads the Bicycle Friendly State program, provides technical assistance to state and local advocates, and conducts research on a variety of topics, with an emphasis on how technology will affect the future of bicycling. Ken is also the author of the Benchmarking Report on Bicycling and Walking, which supports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Active People, Healthy Nation initiative to get 27 million people more physically active. Ken has a J.D. from William & Mary Law School and has a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College in Claremont, CA.