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Slow Streets Were a Success. Should Cities Keep Them?

A recent study examined projects to reduce car use and increase walking and biking on neighborhood streets in five cities, offering a look into how transportation data can be used to craft similar future projects.

Seattle street intersection
Seattle, Washington.
e.republic/David Kidd
The modification of miles of local streets in cities across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic cleared the way for bikers and walkers, and allowed neighborhoods to see their streets in all new ways. 

New data indicates these moves were largely successful, with residents enjoying the extra space to bike and walk safely with lots of room to properly social distance. In cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, car use on the selected streets plummeted, while other users happily selected these routes. 

“We saw a substantial dip in the number of vehicles on them, and we saw a pretty significant uptick in people biking and walking on them,” said Dawn Schellenberg, public affairs manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “They seemed to be successful,” she added. 

Seattle and Minneapolis, along with three other cities, were part of a review of a modified streets study by INRIX, a transportation analysis firm. Seattle and Minneapolis experienced some of the largest levels of increased activity out of the five cities surveyed in the report: Utilization of COVID-19 Street Programs in 5 U.S. Cities. Seattle transitioned some 26 miles of neighborhood streets to its new Stay Healthy Streets program. They were selected, in part, because these corridors were already designated as “neighborhood greenways,” for their friendly walking and biking potential. 

In Minneapolis, three routes totaling 11 miles were identified and the city placed traffic control devices to signal to motorists the changed nature of the streets. Like in Seattle, these routes had already been identified as streets suitable for walking and biking, in some cases known as “bicycle boulevards.” In both cities, and many others, the streets were not entirely closed to vehicles, and could be accessed by residents, delivery drivers and other vehicles. 

“We didn’t fully close the streets… but we used the traffic control devices to essentially slow down cars, and make it clear that there would be people walking and biking in the streets,” explained Matthew Dyrdahl, a transportation planner and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in Minneapolis.

The project in Minneapolis and has been discontinued and the streets have returned to their normal operation. However, the experiment served as a pilot project and a data baseline as the city considers similar biking and walking modifications to right-of-way infrastructure in the future, said Dyrdahl.

“We consider the Stay Healthy Streets a success,” he added. “And we will consider how the Stay Healthy Streets, or other new ideas, maybe restarted or modified in the future. But it may not look the same.”

The INRIX study, which also examined slow streets programs in Washington, D.C., New York City and Oakland, Calif., presented its findings as a big-data analysis showing how car traffic declined sharply on these streets while other uses expanded. 

Non-car activity on restricted streets in New York City saw little change compared to the rest of the city, according to the INRIX study, likely due to the loss of commuter and other activity in the city. Activity on restricted streets in Minneapolis was 133 percent of normal in July, while activity citywide was only at 85 percent. 

Transportation data, say INRIX officials, can and should offer a wealth of insights into how transportation infrastructure decisions are made.

“In the past, we had to rely on physical, in-person counts, in-ground loop detectors or video analysis to count the utilization of slow or restricted streets,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst and author of the INRIX report. “Yet, today there are ways to provide data at a fraction of the cost and offer a high degree of accuracy.”

The data and analysis also points down a path of more data-based decision-making because the kind of approaches to restrict car access on one street may not be the best solution in another neighborhood.

“[City transportation officials] could use data to remove, change or make these projects more permanent,” said Pishue. “But the key is also making these projects a better fit from the beginning. 

“Street restrictions are put in place for a number of reasons: to stop cut-thru traffic, allow families to walk and bike in their neighborhood, social distancing, etc.,” he added. “Yet not all street designs and locations are good for all purposes. Data allows transportation officials the ability to implement the best project for that specific need and measure against those goals.”

In Seattle, transportation officials are beginning the process of resident engagement and outreach to learn more from the community about what Stay Healthy Streets solutions worked, or didn’t, and how they could be modified as the city plans to make permanent some 20 miles of restricted car streets in the future. 

“We did some really quick back-of-the-napkin analysis to figure out where they might be most beneficial, but let’s go out now and talk to people who have experienced them,” Schellenberg offered. “Would these be a benefit to your neighborhood?” 

A community survey seeking input on the project yielded lots of interest, with 9,000 participating in the survey offering some 30,000 “open-ended responses.” 

In Minneapolis, the project offered an opportunity to test out various traffic-calming solutions, gather data, and determine how to move efforts like these forward, said Dyrdahl, adding that a larger mission is to use the momentum generated by these projects to encourage more non-motorized mobility in the future to change behavior and achieve actual mode-shift. 

“We use a wide variety of data to determine where we’ll invest in transportation, including walking and biking. We have an evaluation program that looks at sort of before data, and after a project is built,” he added. 

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