How to Keep Pedestrian Spaces Open in a Post-COVID Era

COVID-19 created unexpected new areas of walkability — 
and, in many places, we want to keep them

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, roads open to vehicular traffic crisscrossed San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Park. These streets cut through copses of tall trees and wide patches of grass. They created unsafe crossings for park visitors, interrupting what were otherwise pedestrian spaces.

Some still do, but motorists can’t speed from one side to the other. JFK Drive, which bisects the park from top to bottom, has been closed to cars since early in the COVID-19 pandemic. City officials touted the decision as a way to provide safe outdoor options to residents. It now offers an additional 1.4 mile stretch for cyclists, runners, kids at play, families with strollers, and many more. 

If advocates have their way, that’s how it’ll stay.

Pedestrian Spaces: Long Overdue

This month, activists in San Francisco have come together to show how communities fight to keep the car-free, pedestrian streets that cropped up during COVID-19. They’re not alone. In cities across the country, COVID-19 offered a new incentive for lawmakers. Residents who were encouraged to stay close to home, rather than commute, needed more options close to home. Outdoor activities, including eating and socializing, became central to public health policies. That meant relaxing rules around outdoor dining, ensuring sidewalks were open and operational, and reducing the number of places where people and cars might intersect. 

Of course, advocates for active streets had been asking for (and demanding) these changes for decades. Ever since cities began carving up streets for the sole purpose of providing parking, activists have been trying to claw the spaces back. In some places, the move toward pedestrian streets had made headway, opening up new spaces for people. But these changes were few and far between — and they felt like huge victories when they were achieved. 

The pandemic, though, created new urgency. And that urgency ultimately lead to a proliferation of new pedestrian spaces. 

In San Francisco, that meant closing JFK Drive to cars.

Proponents say the move has helped revitalize the urban park. According to Grow SF, “Car Free JFK has been one of our region’s bright spots during a trying year.”

On their blog, they report that the new, open expanse “has been wildly popular with walkers, runners, families with strollers and anyone who has rolled through!” Additionally, the space has “provided cultural connection, recreation and safe passage for all visitors, while activating a beautiful stretch of public space.”

It’s curious, then, that city officials in San Francisco would consider reverting back. But not that curious, considering the priorities of many major places. 

Advocates Make Themselves Heard

The urge to immediately allow motorists to have their old rights of way back is strong with a lot of lawmakers. There are those who believe giving cars the maximum amount of space will reduce overall traffic congestion and potentially cut down on the kind of angry driving that leads to crashes. 

But this month in San Francisco, activists have been providing a fantastic example of how to come together and make a case for keeping COVID-19’s car-free spaces free of cars. 

The Car Free JFK coalition has brought together partners from the worlds of health, parks, urbanism, and parenting to create a cohesive message: Going car-free was a good thing, full-stop. From their website: 

We are tired of cars being put first in a park that is meant to serve as a respite from city life, and we would like a safe place for our children (and yours) to play!  Review the animated image to the right.  Previously every street in Golden Gate park…was covered in car traffic, car parking, car danger and car exhaust.  Now there is a beautiful, safe, healthy east/west route…through the park for families to travel & exercise without the stress, fear, noise or exhaust of automobiles.

This message is a great example of how to build a clear case for car-free streets. It touches on numerous elements, including safety, health, and city pride. Additionally, it points to a very important element of car-free streets, which is that they curb traffic from surrounding streets, creating even fewer hazards from dangerous driving activity like speeding or running stop signs. 

Car Free JFK has also been out in force, all but requiring local news stations to cover this issue. Whereas this type of planning decisions are often unceremonious and lack much public input, Car Free JFK’s media blitz has ensured that people know what’s happening, and will know who to blame. This kind of political pressure works — no one wants to be the guy who ruined Golden Gate Park. 

What Comes Next for Pedestrian Spaces

Of course, not everyone loves these spaces and many appropriately challenged how cities engaged communities about the right way to respond to the pandemic. But in many places, people want to see innovative approaches continue.   

Car-free streets in Portland, Seattle, New York, and Chicago have demonstrated something that many of us already knew: If you make the space, people will use it. These open streets have been a boon for business at a time when businesses were struggling to keep their doors open. They’ve helped give people safer places to socialize, which may help cut case counts. And most of all, in the cities where people have experienced these streets and loved them, they’re popular. 

But in these same places, civic leaders may see pedestrian streets as a COVID-specific measure. In Miami, a popular car-free street has already been reopened to vehicles. If advocates want to keep them after the pandemic, we need to be very vocal. As we know, it is much, much more difficult to build the political will to remove cars from streets than it is to retain an existing car-free space. 

Communities have to be very clear about what we want — which streets we want to walk on, which businesses are enjoying their new car-free storefronts. Residents need to highlight specific car-free streets in our cities and towns — in Massachusetts, in Washington DC, and even in Texas —  and demonstrate the benefits. 

We have to ensure that the media covers these meetings and that the message is reaching folks across a range of demographics. And of course, e have to show that car-free streets aren’t a temporary fix. They’re part of a long-term solution that we don’t want to give up.