Not So Fast
One day last spring, during the early weeks of the pandemic, a tree fell across a residential street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC. With the fallen tree making it impossible for cars to pass, the streetscape quickly changed.
“Kids were out on their bikes and their scooters, neighbors were out talking to each other from across the street,” resident and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen told a local media outlet this spring. “And that moment stuck out for me because it really was a [time] when everyone desperately needed more safe outdoor space.”
With many urban commuters suddenly working from home last year, the dramatically reduced car traffic in cities provided an opportunity to provide safe outdoor spaces for the public and formalize the type of spontaneous scene Allen describes. Washington was one of dozens of cities worldwide that piloted “slow streets” programs, restricting portions of mainly residential streets to local and emergency traffic and lowering speed limits. In some places, streets were closed to traffic entirely.
The programs were designed to support neighborhood-based safe social distancing for walkers, runners, cyclists, and other residents who just needed a breath of fresh air. While the concept of slow streets was generally well received, its implementation in Washington and other cities was sometimes rocky—and sparked much-needed discussions about equity, access, and planning.
Washington, DC’s program totaled 26 miles, which is comparable to those piloted in other major cities. As the city’s pilot effort wrapped up this spring, planners there—who are in the midst of updating moveDC, the city’s long-range transportation plan—were gathering public input on the experiment and considering how this experiment could inform decisions going forward. The lessons surfacing in DC, which cover issues ranging from transportation inequities to signage logistics, could also be valuable to other cities that are initiating or expanding slow streets projects this year, from Nashville, Tennessee, to Omaha, Nebraska.
“The pandemic has been hard on all of us, but there have been some benefits,” DC Council Transportation Committee Chair Mary Cheh said at a virtual hearing held in March to gather feedback on the slow streets pilot. “We’ve seen a different future or the possibility of a different future. So we should jump on that.”
The comments that came at the hearing in DC echoed those of residents in places like Oakland, Minneapolis, and Baltimore that also piloted slow streets: While they supported the concept, they were disappointed by the execution. Concerns included a lack of connectivity—among the slow streets themselves and between the streets and other destinations—as well as logistical aspects like traffic enforcement and signage.
- Connectivity counts. Residents and mobility advocates in DC said not all the city’s designated slow streets were well connected, either to each other or to important points in neighborhoods. This seemed to be particularly true in lower-income areas and communities of color. For example, one slow street in the Southeast section of the city, Fairlawn Avenue, parallels a freeway. On the other side of the freeway is the Anacostia River Park, but the slow street did not connect to it. Instead, it ended at a busy intersection with no separate bike lanes, requiring pedestrians and cyclists to travel through a noisy underpass and cross freeway onramps and offramps to get to the Anacostia River Trail footpath. “It is not a welcoming trip into the park,” said transportation equity advocate and writer Ron Thompson. By contrast, four connected slow streets across wealthier neighborhoods in the Northwest section of the city created a 2.5-mile path between scenic Rock Creek Park and a retail hub on Massachusetts Avenue.
- Enforcement is necessary. Although DC’s Department of Transportation stated from the outset that its slow streets were meant to be “self-enforcing,” that was an aspect of the experiment that just didn’t work, residents said. Residents reported that the lightweight construction barriers used to mark the entrance to slow streets in DC simply made them look like temporary work zones and that the streets didn’t have enough signage explaining the program. As a result, cars still regularly zoomed through and people didn’t always feel safe using the streets. This has been a problem in other cities, as well; Baltimore resident Abigail Burman told the Greater Greater Washington transportation blog in December that she regularly dragged slow streets barricades off the sidewalk. “I’ve literally never seen a barrier in the actual street,” she said.
- Community buy-in is critical. Slow streets in DC also ran into deep-seated mistrust related to longstanding inequities in urban transportation. DC’s poorest district, Ward 8, whose population is majority Black and heavily dependent on public transportation, did not have any slow streets. The city had planned to introduce them, but Ward 8 councilmember Trayon White added an amendment to the citywide slow streets law barring modifications there. “Many residents in Ward 8 have not supported bike lanes and other measures that appear to force aspects of gentrification and displacement,” White wrote in his amendment. Thompson, a Ward 8 resident, said at the March hearing that the opposition around things like protected bike lanes “is part of a greater conversation about how the government has failed to deliver services to communities like Ward 8. These infrastructure improvements are seen as a sign of neighborhood change and displacement, and we have to work together to correct decades and decades and decades of that being true.”
This kind of feedback will help the city map out its next steps, according to Everett Lott, interim director of the city’s Department of Transportation. Putting out a call for public input via social media in March, Lott wrote, “We are reviewing the lessons learned from this experiment as we seek a permanent and more effective strategy to safely create spaces for people.”
Jessie Grogan, associate director of Reduced Poverty and Spatial Inequality at the Lincoln Institute, echoed the sentiment that slow streets programs are “a good idea, but we have a lot to learn about how to execute it.” The programs, she added, are a positive sign that cities are stepping back from prioritizing cars. “In the last five to ten years, bike and pedestrian advocates have gotten really good at getting cities to think more dynamically about how streets can be used,” she said.
But a big lesson learned, she added, is that cities need to be more intentional about the purpose of the streets in the first place—then design accordingly. “If you want to get people from point A to B without getting in cars, then how do you do that safely for people walking or biking?” she said. “The way it was implemented [in DC], it wasn’t in service of that goal.”
Despite the drawbacks, slow streets remain a popular idea with mobility advocates, and the lessons of 2020 will inform pilot programs and more permanent planning decisions going forward. In Omaha, Nebraska, Sarah Jones, cofounder of the local transportation equity nonprofit Mode Shift Omaha, is working on funding for a pilot program and said she plans to incorporate the lessons other cities have learned. She’s looking at planters for street barricades and more colorful signage to raise awareness. She also plans to seek community feedback before, during, and after the experiment. And in her car-loving city, she’s thinking about how to frame the program so that everyone sees how they benefit.
“Omaha is kind of anti-bike, so we really have to communicate that it’s not just about bikes—it’s for people jogging, strollers, scooters,” said Jones. “It’s about how being outside is better for mental health . . . and how we can connect places and nodes like neighborhood parks to a central retail district. If you can do that, I think that’s crucial.”
Liz Farmer is a fiscal policy expert and journalist whose areas of expertise include budgets, fiscal distress, and tax policy. She is currently a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center.
Photograph: Public feedback in Washington, DC, has identified potential improvements to the city’s slow streets program, ranging from more equitable implementation to more effective signage. Credit: District Department of Transportation.