By Patrick Wojahn
As I speak with my neighbors in College Park and other trail users around the country, it’s clear how COVID-19 has changed the shape of our lives. It’s changed how we govern, how we work, how our kids learn, how we exercise and how we get from place to place. And for many, it’s changed how we view the outdoors.
Demand for places to be active outside right now is surging. At its highest, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) measured trail use across the country as an average of 200% higher than last year at this time.
We’ve seen this surge first-hand in College Park—use of our trails has skyrocketed despite unseasonably cold and rainy weather this spring. Our city’s amazing trail system along the Anacostia watershed has proven invaluable, as has our local rail-trail, the Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail, built in the right-of-way of a streetcar line that ran in the mid-20th century.
At RTC, where I serve as the organization’s director of government relations, we’ve been working closely with trail managers and municipalities so that they have resources and information to help people be safe on the trail.
Where communities have trails, the most important step to ensuring safe opportunities for outdoor activity during the pandemic is to maintain access to these vital assets. Municipal leaders and trail managers across the country are using signage, public education and other measures to help ensure safe physical distancing on trails and in parks, while also encouraging long-time trail users to practice good trail etiquette and welcome the many people and families who may be visiting the trail for the first time. In College Park, we worked with our county government to make a trail around a local lake one-way, so that more people could use the trail and safely pass one another. In Kyle, Texas, the municipal government enlisted volunteers to encourage users of a newly opened trail to practice physical distancing and opened a local golf course for use by walkers and bicyclists.
At RTC, we’re encouraging local officials to consider streets as spaces for people to be active—more than 8,700 people have signed a petition calling for more places to walk and bike, further demonstrating a demand for the outdoors that far exceeds what most cities have available.
Local leaders have responded, recognizing people’s need to be outside, where they can be active and find respite from the stress of the pandemic. Where sidewalks and trails are not wide enough to accommodate people while allowing for physical distancing, dozens of communities have opened streets to pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities, widening sidewalks, installing temporary bicycle infrastructure, and blocking off lanes or entire streets to vehicle traffic. With traffic levels down as much as 50% nationwide, the opportunity is perfect for communities to explore streets as a solution.
A first step that many communities have taken is to extend sidewalks. Minneapolis, for example, has used bollards to widen 5 miles of sidewalks, focusing on areas where there is a heavy concentration of essential workers using narrow sidewalks that do not support physical distancing. Washington, D.C., has also widened sidewalks in some areas where there is heavy pedestrian traffic to access essential businesses.
In other places, cities have made entire streets available for people to be active. Many have limited vehicle access to through traffic and implemented traffic calming measures to limit the speed at which vehicles can move—an idea known as “slow streets.” Most notable is the City of Oakland, California, which has dedicated 74 miles of city streets as slow streets.
As cities work quickly to address emerging community needs in response to the pandemic, questions and concerns arise about how equitably outdoor interventions are being applied. Who in the community is most served by repurposing streets for physical activity? Whose experience do these efforts reflect? Especially as many of our most vulnerable residents live in low-income communities, with little existing access to the outdoors and outsized rates of COVID-19 infection and death, it is essential that we take a community-led approach and apply an equity lens to any interventions we pursue. Tucson, Arizona, for example, used an equity index to determine where to focus its efforts. Seattle, which announced plans to permanently pedestrianize 20 miles of roads and accelerate plans to install biking infrastructure, prioritized community needs when identifying streets for repurposing—focusing on areas with little open space, low rates of car ownership and along routes to essential services.
At RTC, we suggest that the best streets to consider are those that create connected walking and biking routes to essential businesses, like grocery stores and banks, and those that extend developed trails, creating more space for recreation and transportation and closing gaps between places. Local officials should identify streets with resident input for physical activity and active transportation while protecting important transportation routes for essential workers, emergency crews, residential traffic and other local needs.
These efforts to rethink the streetscape as a rapid response to a public health crisis could lead to long-term changes. Even after the pandemic is over, our communities will face a new normal. Restaurants might reopen with limited capacity inside and sidewalk space could be repurposed for outdoor seating. Even as transit returns to normal levels of operation, people’s transportation patterns will change, influenced by concerns about safety and convenience. As communities reopen, we might reserve some streets for local traffic only while preserving space for pedestrians, bicyclists and people with disabilities.
As the nation begins the slow work to re-open, we can expect demand for outside space to continue to grow, even as traffic increases to pre-COVID 19 levels. The National League of Cities and RTC will continue to monitor the way that cities adapt to our changing reality and safely accommodate people who are walking, biking, running and rolling as a means of transportation or recreation. Timely resources are available from RTC at railstotrails.org/covid19.
Patrick Wojahn is on the board of the National League of Cities, the Mayor of College Park, Maryland, and the director of government relations for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails and active transportation advocacy organization.