Create Safe Places to Walk and Bike During COVID-19 Advocacy Toolkit

2018 St. Petersburg Open Streets | Photo courtesy CityofStPete | CC BY-ND 2.0


Tools to Advocate Locally for Safe Places to Walk and Bike


Local officials and elected leaders have shared how important it is to hear from local residents about solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are interested in creating more safe space to walk, bike and be active in your neighborhood, here are tips and resources to support local resident advocacy as well as planning efforts led by local officials and planners. If you are pursuing an effort to close a street for walking and biking access, please let us know. Send us a message and share what you’re doing on Twitter and tag @railstotrails #streetsforsocialdistancing #openstreets. It is important to note that advocating for street closures is intended to create more space for physical activity at a safe social distance. This should not be interpreted as a traditional “Open Streets” event. Rather, it is a responsive measure and not an invitation for individuals to gather.

SIGN PETITION  OTHER WAYS TO HELP

How to Advocate For More Safe Space in Your Community

If you are a local resident interested in closing a street in your neighborhood to create more safe  space for walking, biking and physical activity, the first step is to find the right decision maker in your community.

Every community is structured differently. You may consider reaching out to your mayor or county executive, your county board, your own councilmember, “at-large” councilmembers (if any), the council chair or council president (if any), the chairs of the council’s transportation and/or parks and recreation committees (if any), your neighborhood council, and the jurisdiction’s departments of transportation and parks.

LOOK UP YOUR LOCAL OFFICIAL

Once you’ve identified the right decision maker in your community, send a letter to let them know you want more safe space to be physically active during COVID-19. A sample letter is available in the “Sample Letter to Local Decision Makers”. It is often helpful if you can get others in your neighborhood to sign the letter.

Next, you need to show that others in your neighborhood support the idea. You can use RTC’s petition as a resource and borrow language to get your petition up-and-running.

You can also share what you’re doing to get additional support. Reach out to a local reporter (find reporters here), write a letter to the editor (sample letter can be found in “Sample Letter to the Editor/Newspaper”), and share on Twitter and social media tagging @railstotrails and using #streetsforsocialdistancing, #openstreets and #Covid19Streets in your posts.

Effective Messaging Guidelines

  • Outreach should lead with the solutions-oriented approach. Bringing a solution-mindset to the current public, physical and mental-health challenges of the pandemic, rather than an active transportation agenda, will help engage local officials who are working hard to the economic and health crisis that is unfolding across the country.
  • In all communication, it is necessary that you follow local, state and CDC public guidance. Note that the majority of state and local stay-at home orders allow for outdoor exercise. You can find orders by state here.
  • Focus on what will most support the public, physical and mental-health and well-being of the community during this time. Identify areas where demand for outdoor space is high, or there is a safety risk associated with people walking and biking in places that are not separated from vehicle traffic.
  • Start with low-hanging fruit. For example, streets that are already used for seasonal or weekend-only “open streets” events, and streets within parks and park systems (most U.S. streets that have opened for walking and biking in response to COVID-19 thus far have been within parks, or park-adjacent).
  • Share examples of comparable cities, towns or counties that have used their streets to create more safe space for walking and biking. You can find a list here. You can also find sample guidelines in “Sample Guidelines for Converting Streets to Open Space for Physical Activity”.
  • Look for points of compromise as you negotiation strategies for creating immediate access to outdoor space for physical activity. We love Denver’s approach of creating open streets that maintain vehicle access for emergency vehicles as well as for residents who live on the street. Vancouver’s approach maintains one directional traffic (e.g. Eastbound lanes of Beach Ave.) while opening up the other direction of traffic to pedestrians and bicyclists only.

Using Data to Guide Decision Making

  • There is significant data available right now that can help direct decision making about where street closures to vehicle traffic would be helpful in managing public health challenges associated with crowding that makes it difficult for people to maintain 6 feet of physical distance, critical transportation routes where safe biking access would improve the mobility of essential workers, or where people are having difficulty accessing outside space for physical activity near their homes.
  • The best street closures will be 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. Street closures will be identified by local elected officials and residents, providing for physical activity and active transportation while protecting important transportation routes for essential workers, emergency crews, and residential traffic among other local needs.
  • Vehicle traffic count data can be used to identify low-traffic routes that would be good choices for reducing vehicle traffic.
  • Local trail traffic counts can provide insight as to where demand for outdoor space is high and opening adjacent or connecting streets for increased walking and biking access would be helpful.  
  • Ask the public as well as city council members to give their input and ideas.

Think Long-Term and in Phases.

Response to the pandemic may extend for many months.

  • As you consider where to create new space for physical activity, focus on risk management rather than risk elimination. As the pandemic and associated responses continue to evolve, people will continue to seek places where they can safely be physically active outside, in accordance with local, state and CDC guidelines. Provide clarity to your community about how best to be safe while outside, including information about wearing face coverings, how best to maintain 6 feet of distance, and guidelines for how to access outdoor spaces. This Facebook post by Brownsville, Texas City Commissioner Rose Gowen, M.D., is a great example of ways to provide information about the latest guidance to the community. RTC has gathered examples of other local materials and signage that inform individuals about staying safe while outside.
  • It’s important to remember that more streets can be phased in over time, especially to ensure access to outdoor spaces for physical activity is equitable across geographies. Denver, for example has said they will be looking to open more streets over time in response to demand throughout the city.
  • If you are advocating for a street to open for walking and biking access, be prepared that the answer might be “no” today, but the longer the pandemic goes on there may be opportunities down the line to revisit the idea. Many public officials and elected leaders are in the midst of triage crisis response that may not give them the resources or bandwidth to pursue this idea now, but they may be able to in the coming weeks. It’s important to keep lines of communication open with public officials and elected leaders.
  • Test possible solutions. Street closures can be tested over a two to three-day period (e.g. Friday through Sunday) to identify any unanticipated problems, which is what they did to develop their plan for increased bikeways in Bogotá, adjust the plan, and consider alternate or additional locations.

Prioritize Creating Safe Spaces for the Most Vulnerable.

  • Many individuals and families have little to no day-to-day access to the outside. With restrictions in movement between places and orders to stay-at-home and only be outside in spaces that are close-to-home, there are significant disparities between those who can safely walk, bike and be active. Closing select streets to vehicle traffic creates immediate opportunities to provide new and equitable access to outdoor places where people can be active while maintaining a safe social distance.
  • Gather input and engage in a dialogue with residents to determine the best strategies and most important needs associated with efforts to create safe space for walking and biking, including new access to bicycle and walking transportation routes that might be critical for those who previously relied on transit. Transportation and commuter routes were key to decision making in Vancouver, Bogotá, and Burlington, Vermont.
  • Data about the impact of COVID-19 shows that communities of color are at a higher risk for health and economic challenges associated with the virus. Look to close streets to vehicle traffic in neighborhoods and among communities where people are most at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. For example, where density is high and there is little to no access to open space such as trails and parks.
  • Prioritize streets in and around essential commercial services to create safe walking and biking access, especially in more densely populated areas.

Leverage Previous Experience For Successful Implementation

  • Many cities have past experience coordinating across agencies and bureaucratic lines to facilitate seasonal “Open Streets” events and other major celebrations and activities. These experiences can be modeled for effective and efficient street closures that create space for walking and biking during COVID-19.
  • For example, Philadelphia had previous experience from weekend open streets and from the Pope visiting. Closing off streets during the Pope’s visit helped the City realize that this could be done while easing public concerns and increasing public support for closing off the streets in the future.
  • Duluth, Minnesota had previous experience working through five natural disasters in recent years, which meant they were already used to operating in rapid response mode and working across bureaucratic lines. This experience helped them coordinate a quick response to creating more outdoor public space for walking and biking during COVID-19.
  • It’s important to note, however, that in coordinating across agencies and communicating with the public, that it is clear the street closures to vehicle traffic are intended to create more space for physical activity at a safe social distance. This should not be interpreted as a traditional “Open Streets” event. Rather, it is a responsive measure and not an invitation for individuals to gather.

Talking Points for Physical Activity and Keeping Trails Open

  • During these unprecedented times, people need safe places to get outside and exercise. Unfortunately, the surge in people seeking outside space close-to-home is putting a considerable strain on our public spaces. Trails, sidewalks and limited park space are crowded or closed in many places, making it difficult for people to safely maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.
  • Some sidewalks, trails, and parks have become dangerously crowded. Creating more space for individuals and families to be spread out and socially distance in outdoor space is essential.
  • At a time of dramatically-reduced car traffic, closing select streets to vehicle traffic is a way to create more safe space for people to safely get outside and exercise. We have an opportunity to make this more tolerable for people as they endure the new normal for the long-term. Getting outside is essential to our wellbeing.
  • In addition, essential workers who previously relied on public transit are turning to walking and biking for transportation. Creating safe routes for walking and biking by closing streets to vehicle traffic, adding protected bike lanes and keeping trails open will be essential to their transportation.
  • Cities around the country and the world are providing new examples every day that can be applied in your community.
  • Crowded trails may be a sign of a lack of open spaces. Before closing them, consider if the space be altered to encourage safe social distancing (e.g., widening the trail, closing roads within/around a park to vehicle traffic, closing streets to vehicles to allow pedestrians and cyclists to expand beyond the sidewalk)? Can we create additional open spaces in the community (including by converting open streets) to increase supply and reduce burden on this one overcrowded space? If the above solutions are not attainable or do not rectify the problem, closing specific overcrowded trails and public spaces is preferable to closing all of them.

Sample Guidelines for Converting Streets to Open Space

DENVER, COLORADO

Denver’s approach involves closing more than 13 miles of streets to local-traffic only, allowing for emergency vehicles and people who live on those streets to maintain vehicle access. Yet, lower traffic volumes allow for more safe space for pedestrians and bicyclists to be active while practicing social distancing.


“More locations are being reviewed for implementation and will be listed in the COVID-19 area of the city’s website at www.denvergov.org in the coming days. Areas being looked at first are neighborhoods with greater population densities where there’s a greater need for space and where adjacent parks are seeing significant use and reaching capacity. Areas of the city that don’t have immediate access to a park or trail are also being prioritized.”


Source: Denver to Temporarily Close Select Roads to Thru-Traffic Amid COVID-19 Physical Distancing Rules | April 3, 2020

Allowable activities in Denver, Colorado include:

  • Low speed activities including walking, biking and running. People should maintain physical distancing and be mindful of each other regardless of mode of travel.
  • Emergency vehicles and people who live on the street are allowed access.
  • People carrying out essential business activities such as deliveries or take-out orders that start or end on the stretch are also allowed access to the roadway.
  • On-street parking is allowed. However, Denver is still enforcing fire hydrant clearance zones, no stopping zones, loading zones, blocked driveways and alleys. More information on current parking regulations can be found on the city’s website.

Activities not allowed on these stretches closed to thru-traffic include, but are not limited to:

  • Group gatherings
  • Picnicking
  • Set up of tables, chairs, play equipment, etc.
CALGARY, ALBERTA

Consulting firm, O2 Planning and Design suggests three possible ways to temporarily utilize atypically low traffic streets (based on Calgary’s core street network) for safer social distancing.

Additional Resources and Guidelines

Sample Letter to Local Decision Makers

Dear [insert local elected official names here]:

During these unprecedented times, people need safe places to get outside and exercise. Unfortunately, the surge in people seeking outside space close-to-home is putting a considerable strain on our public spaces. Trails, sidewalks and limited park space are crowded or closed in many places, making it difficult for people to safely maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.

[Personalize message with example of how this hardship is affecting your community]

With dramatically-reduced car traffic due to the pandemic, we have an opportunity to create more public spaces for people to safely get out—by opening up our streets for walking, biking and physical activity. Closing off selected streets to cars or converting some traffic lanes to biking and walking use   can expand access to the outdoors, which is essential to maintaining physical and mental health.

[Insert local example of outdoor exercise of activity being listed as essential in your state’s shelter-in-place order. All orders can be found here.]

I urge [insert city/town/county name] to look to the models established in cities around the country like [insert comparable examples. The list can be found here.

Open streets during the pandemic lockdown are an attainable tactic to improve quality of life and promote public health.

Sincerely,

[Name]

[Address]

[Contact information]

Sample Letter to the Editor/Newspaper

(Brevity is crucial to getting letters to the editor published. Check if your newspaper has a word count maximum (often ~250 words). Whether they have a maximum or not, the shorter the letter, the more likely it is there will be space to print it. Don’t try to make every argument; choose one supporting point.)

During these unprecedented times, [insert place, e.g. Marylanders, Kansans, Chicagoans] need safe places to get outside and exercise. Unfortunately, the surge in people seeking outside space close-to-home is putting a considerable strain on our public spaces. Trails, sidewalks and limited park space are crowded or closed in many places, making it difficult for people to safely maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.

With dramatically-reduced car traffic due to the pandemic, we have an opportunity to create more public spaces for people to safely get out—by opening up our streets for walking, biking and physical activity. Closing off selected streets to cars or converting some traffic lanes to biking and walking use   can expand access to the outdoors, which is essential to maintaining physical and mental health.

[City, etc.] should look to the models established in cities around the country like [insert comparable examples. The list can be found here. Open streets during the pandemic lockdown are an attainable tactic to improve quality of life and promote public health.