Slow streets & physical distancing lanes during COVID-19

Cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, and others have received attention for their decision to prioritize certain streets as “slow streets” to better accommodate physically distanced recreation. While these policies have been widely advertised as street closures, they’re not full closures but efforts to slow down cars. We’ve been working to slow down Atlanta’s streets to 25 mph (the lowest currently allowed speed limit in Georgia) for the past year and just reached a major milestone for this campaign on April 20th

The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and PEDS remain committed to safer speeds as a critical policy for all types of mobility--both active transportation and outdoor recreation--we began pursuing this long before COVID-19, and we’ll continue to do so during and after the pandemic.

When we first heard talk of making long-sought changes to our streets, we got excited. Opening streets as part of a cultural shift toward active transportation is one of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s long-term goals, as evidenced by our Atlanta Streets Alive demonstrations, pop-up bike lanes, and advocacy for a tactical urbanism permit. However, making these changes to streets during a pandemic that is creating major challenges to people’s health and ability to support their families has raised equity concerns

We recognize and appreciate the range of viewpoints on this topic, and understand why there might be an expectation that we’d take a stand for Atlanta to set aside more street space for people to take walks, go on runs, and ride bikes during COVID-19. We get it--those who bike or walk to essential jobs need safe streets, and those of us working from home want to maintain physical distance when getting exercise or enjoying a walk. 

However, we had to ensure we took time to thoroughly consider this complex issue and how it could affect all people, which led us to the choice to support the City’s decision not to pursue extra physical distancing lanes / slow streets during the pandemic at this time. 

Open streets will continue to be a critical advocacy area --this spring the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition will (virtually) celebrate Atlanta Streets Alive’s 10th anniversary, and one of our 2020 priorities is to align support for more frequent open streets activations through the program.

PEDS is currently using its resources to shine a light on safety in underserved communities where people are more likely to walk and take transit. There continues to be an increasing epidemic of pedestrian fatalities in lower-income communities because of fewer safe intersections, lack of sidewalks, fewer crosswalks, poor lighting, and dangerous routes to public transportation.

In applying the Untokening Collective’s Mobility Justice and COVID-19 guiding principles, we’ve identified a key difference between our long-term advocacy for open streets and the call for physical distancing lanes during the COVID-19 outbreak. Seeing equitable and safe active transportation become a reality for all is our top priority. So we had to ask ourselves: is this an equitable policy, and how could it be implemented fairly and in a manner that doesn't further endanger people? Utilizing the Untokening’s Mobility Justice and COVID-19 framework and listening to diverse voices helped us answer that question. 

First, we must prioritize reliable transit for our frontline workers--those of us operating MARTA, working in hospitals, stocking grocery stores, and doing so many levels of essential work are most vulnerable during this pandemic. Prioritizing our essential workers means removing barriers for MARTA buses to operate with ease before making more physical activity space for those of us with more mobility options and more freedom to change our schedules. 

Once workplaces start to re-open, we need infrastructure like bus lanes in order to reduce the duration of exposure for people who need transit. Atlanta Bicycle Coalition is also prioritizing workers making essential trips through our focused Virtual City Cycling classes and #BikeMatch program to get people bikes who need them. It is critical that we uphold those in our community who do not have the privilege of working from home. 

Secondly, closing public streets to cars right now could result in unwelcome enforcement for Black and Brown people, who already face higher risk of negative police interaction. Lastly, since this moment makes equitable public input very difficult, moving forward with physical distancing lanes could overlook input from the very voices we seek to engage. 

We encourage everyone who’d like to think more on the topic to view the full Untokening resource here

These concerns and conversations with the City of Atlanta led both Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and PEDS to conclude that installing temporary physical distancing lanes during quarantine would not be an equitable course of action for Atlanta right now. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s vision is of “an Atlanta where everyone moves safely, easily, and sustainably throughout the city.” We will only get there if we acutely prioritize safety and ease of movement for our community members who have been denied safe and complete streets for decades.