Guest opinion: We should open up neighborhood streets for social distancing

Posted by on March 16th, 2020 at 10:40 am

Many people have open spaces right in front of their homes, what if we discouraged driving on them and opened them up to safely-distanced play?
(Photo: Sam Balto)

**This article is by Sam Balto, a Weston Award Winner and Physical Education teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in north Portland. We last heard from him when he launched a guerrilla safety campaign using red cups to protect bike lanes.**

“I noticed how little space we have in our neighborhoods for walkers, runners, and everyone else who uses sidewalks.”

We have entered uncharted territory here in Portland and in the United States. We are living through the most severe pandemic to hit in our lifetimes. Since Thursday, when Governor Brown announced the large gathering ban and social distancing, request going out in public has felt much different. I was happy to see so many people out and walking outside this weekend to get fresh air and some exercise.

But while walking with my family I realized it was impossible to follow CDC’s recommended 6 foot distance to avoid person-to-person contact. Then I noticed how little space we have in our neighborhoods for walkers, runners, and everyone else who uses sidewalks.

With fewer people commuting to work, school and other events over the coming weeks, what if we encourage more neighborhood-level open streets that allow for passive, outdoor activities while still enabling safe social distancing? I think it’s time we made some streets (mostly) carfree streets during this pandemic and I’ve started a petition to tell Mayor Ted Wheeler and other local leaders about it.

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PBOT already has a robust block party permit program.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

During our time of social isolation, our community still needs physical activity and fresh air. Our network of neighborhood greenways should be carfree while we are in a State of Emergency. This would allow for ample open space for people not using cars. People could enjoy safe social distancing without the threat of being run over by drivers.

What would this look like? We could start with plans already created by people in our community.

In 2016 BikePortland shared Terry Dublinski-Milton’s idea of a diverter at every intersection where neighborhood greenway crossed a larger street. And Dublinski-Milton helped author a called Diversion on Bikeways as Urban Form (PDF) in 2018 with local planner Garlynn Woodsong (Land Use & Transportation Committee chair for the Concordia Neighborhood Association and the Planning and Development Partner at the Portland planning firm Cascadia Partners, LLC). That plan calls for diverters every two blocks that allow for local residents using cars to access driveways and parking spaces, but not to cut through the neighborhood. The idea is for drivers to stay on larger, arterial and collector roads and leave neighborhood streets for, well, neighbors. We could use existing materials for diverters like planters, traffic cones, barricades, jersey barriers and signs.

What do you think? If you like this idea, please consider signing this petition to Mayor Wheeler, Bureau of Transportation Commissioner and PBOT Director Chris Warner.

— Sam Balto, @CoachBalto on Twitter.
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NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

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Alan 1.0BrianTeri StopoulosJasonD'Andre Muhammed Recent comment authors
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JeffS
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JeffS

Nothing like using a pandemic to push your personal agenda.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

I knew this would be the first comment!

Also expect people to say, “This is a crisis and you want to help those elitist crybaby cyclists?!”

JeffS, keep in mind this is just an idea to consider and since this site is all about mobility and streets, this is what we talk about. Also, I disagree with you that trying to find ways to improve people’s health and sanity during this crisis is a “personal agenda”… at least in the way you mean it here.

pruss2ny
Guest
pruss2ny

cities with vastly greater population density (think shanghai) somehow managed thru a roughly 2mo lockdown w/o this being a top concern…i wud think BP readers could come up with a much more impressive list of where our concerns should be.

B. Carfree
Subscriber
B. Carfree

Sure, all they did was close all the streets to everything and everyone.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/business/coronavirus-china-tianjin-response.html

pruss2ny
Guest
pruss2ny

Thanks for the link, but am very familiar w/ China.

shanghai was effectively shut down, but its not like they declared martial law except perhaps for a few clusters. as a society they just immediately shift into community-over-individual mode..it can be impressive or draconian, however u want to look at it…but i seriously doubt there was 1 second of “we need a place for passive play” but rather 100% “we need to shut down and stop this thing.” on the positive, family in shanghai dealt w/ a severely limited city (carry out at restaurants etc) for about 5weeks, and then some time last week the city largely got back to normal…as though nothing ever happened.

i’m wildly selfish, but my first thot here isn’t that i need to make a grab for more greenspace, rather its: how do i as an individual rise up to help backstop the vital systems this region is concerned may be overwhelmed in the next few weeks.

in the past couple days we’ve gone door/door in neighborhood checking in/updating/distributing contact info….i’ve also reached out to emergency services group in pdx offering to organize a 10-15 person team to track/input/verify data or do any other bullsht jobs they need handled.

seems there’s about a zillion city planners/organizers on this site…tell us what we can be doing to organize and be ready to help…please.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Alternative take: nothing like adapting to a public health crises by implementing smart policies that improve public health. People need to get exercise, and do it in safe distances. Vehicle traffic is going to dramatically decrease in the coming weeks. This is a win-win.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

Sometimes it takes pretty severe traumas to shift behavior patterns and ingrained habits. I am really curious as to whether these changes stick and people have a change of attitude, or if they leap back into the old habits.

carfree1979
Guest
carfree1979
Jason
Guest
Jason

It’s bad enough that cyclists are turned away from bank and fast food drive through lanes.

Becky Jo (Columnist)
Member

So… first I want to loooove this, as I went out on my bike yesterday on Greenways and, as I’m the designated errand person in my quarantined house + my elderly neighbors, I got dairy at the store. The only people in my neighborhood that were driving were people that looked like they needed to be there… like, I’m in primarily a blue collar area and my neighbors don’t really work from home. So, while I love this because I can WFH, it’s not the reality for a lot of people here in NoPo. I’d hate to make it harder for people that already have it hard. I’ve been there, on WIC with my $150 Maverick that barely ran, going to Hot n Now for my job while still being a teen & pregnant. Having your road blocked when all you want to do is get to work and home and collapse… yeah, I dunno.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

Thanks for sharing Becky Jo. I expected this concern to come up right away. I absolutely agree that we shouldn’t do anything to make people’s lives harder right now. I wonder if we could see this more as creating safer space for people on these streets — not as limiting driving access. There could ways of doing something like this without creating hard closures, like how PBOT does block party permits. Those are basically giving residents the power to put up tiny little barricades at each end of their block that say “Street Closed for Block Party”. People who live on the block can still drive around the sign, but it keeps non-local drivers away.

With so much less driving traffic right now, I’d encourage folks to play in the streets a lot more even without any barricades!

Todd Boulanger
Guest
Todd Boulanger

I guess I am “young” enough not to what ‘Hot n Now’ was…my mind ran the gamut from sun tanning service to…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_%27n_Now

Becky Jo (Columnist)
Member

Todd, 😀 you didn’t miss much. It was gross.

Jonathan: certainly. I’m sure there’s got to be an answer somewhere in the gray. It’s not black and white, let alone known territory. It would def take all kinds to come to the table and talk amicably.

Brian
Guest
Brian

Wow, a Hot N Now reference! We spent many a weekend mornings there in Wisconsin in an attempt to lessen the hangover stronghold.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

It felt cozy when they took away our wide sidewalks and gave them to motor vehicles. Now it’s seems scary to walk in such close proximity to each other.

Thanks cars. You never stop taking.

Austin
Guest
Austin

I like the idea, but it didn’t go over well on Reddit, that’s for sure:
https://www.reddit.com/r/Portland/comments/fj829r/near_wilshire_park_sunday/

Matt
Guest
Matt

I mean, yeah, my first thought on seeing a renegade street closure is Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Act only in the way that you would wish for everybody to act”). In other words, just imagine the chaos that would ensue if every block were “closed” by its residents.

carfree1979
Guest
carfree1979

Exactly. This screams entitlement to me. The street belongs to us all.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

I disagree with this idea that asking for safer streets and less use of the most dangerous and toxic vehicles = “entitlement”. First, why do so many people assume that all things bike or walk or carfree-related are elitist/for rich people and that driving is somehow a blue-collar, working-class thing? Also, consider how the vast mechanism of car culture has impacted your thinking when you say people who drive the most expensive vehicle on the most expensive infrastructure with most negative societal impact are the victims and that people who dare challenge that idea are “entitled”. IMO it’s extremely entitled to assume that the streets you live on should be so powerfully impacted by your choice of vehicle. It’s selfish and dangerous and we need to get over this if we ever want a more sane, healthy, sustainable system.

And please don’t call me out for being insensitive to people who have no other option than to drive. That’s fine. I get that. And that’s even me sometimes (I own two cars and will use them when I “need” to, although it’s usually based on logistics and not income)! But think on that for a while. Why is it that some people have no choice but to drive? It’s because our system is broken. Guess how we fix that system? We talk about alternatives, new approaches to the problem, and new ways of seeing streets… Like this idea from Sam.

As for me being privileged. Yes, in many ways I am! I know BikePortland and this white privileged guy who run it are an easy scapegoat on issues of race, income, and so on. But think about that for minute. I have three kids and a wife and I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life dedicated to building a community media platform. For a solid 10 years of my life (30 to 40 years old, prime career years!) I was sole breadwinner for my family running a fricking blog about bikes and working for almost nothing. I had zero retirement, no safety net, nothing. Just a hope and prayer that if I worked hard enough, things would be OK. My wonderful wife Juli decided just a few years ago that things were so bad financially that she had to return to work (after staying home to raise our kids). Thankfully she got a job at the City of Portland so we have a bit more stability now. But she’s a low-level employee so there’s still a lot of anxiety in our house (that we own, thank god, or this blog would not exist) that I’ve poured 15 years into a blog. But here I am! And I love this and I love all of you. I’m going to be fine (all my privilege, remember!), I just think some of you get the wrong idea about me before you even know me.

pruss2ny
Guest
pruss2ny

you’ve created (or tapped into) a very powerful organized informed group.

a nuclear bomb has gone off in wuhan, italy, and now an invisible enemy is at our doorstep. any conversation that includes the phrase “car culture” or debates who the roads belong to, its just not worthy in this precise instant. as i typed above, i’d rather hear from your community how we should be organizing to backstop vital organizations

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

thanks for that input. finding the right balance of what to cover and how to cover it has not been easy.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

And thank you for doing it.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

:+1:

Matt
Guest
Matt

This feels like a straw man argument to me, or else you’ve missed the point that carfree1979 and I were making. None of what you’ve written here really addresses the safety, legality, morality, or logic of people deciding they’re closing the streets they live on by personal fiat, without consulting anybody else.

I’m 100% in favor of reducing the dangers posed by motor vehicles. But this ain’t the way to do it. Won’t the children playing in the street actually be *more* at risk of being run over by a car, when a driver rightly decides that the street closure is bogus? It gives the people on the block a false sense of safety.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

I never said people should just go out and close streets themselves willy-nilly. In fact, I’ve proposed that PBOT merely expand their existing block party program to make streets closures even easier during the outbreak. What Sam did in his photo is his business… And I have a hunch his neighbors are cool with it.

Terry D-M
Guest
Terry D-M

Thank you for the acknowledgement. Though the idea of benefits during a pandemic did not occur to me when I wrote that, it is certainly a good idea. This is an emergency, and emergency measures need to be taken. It may be that after we get through this pandemic the public will want to keep the quiet streets, quiet, with all the long term health and community benefits. For now, everything needs to be looked at.

David Hampsten
Guest

Does anyone know if PDX Transformation is still around, to put in traffic cone diverters?

Suburban
Guest
Suburban

The city is looking really good recently. Like a crisp March day I remember in 1989.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Contrails are fewer too. Time to observe what our home looks like NATURALLY:

https://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/

D'Andre Muhammed
Guest
D'Andre Muhammed

Blocking streets and exercising their white privilege. How cute. I think people in my community would get a very different response for doing the same.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

I find it interesting you are capable of speaking for different communities at the same time.

Matt
Guest
Matt

It seems to me that D’Andre is speaking *for* only his own community, and speaking *about* another community. I find it interesting that you missed that distinction.

D'Andre Muhammed
Guest
D'Andre Muhammed

Matt: you would be correct, thank you. A couple black men “block” a street and at the very least a get some sideways looks. Worse, the police could be called. We just don’t have that luxury. Especially in Portland.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I’m a big fan of keeping cars on arterial streets. Cut through traffic through “fly over” areas cause harm to the local inhabitants. Now that traffic is at very low volume, there’s no need to keep cutting through my side streets. I see nothing wrong with closing neighborhood streets to non residents. As Jonathan stated, assuming the right to drive on any street is true entitlement.

Teri Stopoulos
Guest
Teri Stopoulos

We live on a mostly quiet, residential street in North Portland (Kenton). I let my 4 year old ride his bike on our street by himself and around the block (on the sidewalk) by himself. It seems to me that the auto traffic is about the same now as it was pre-covid (with perhaps marginally more delivery truck traffic.) However, the sunny weather and school closures have meant more neighbor kids playing in the streets and we’re enjoying the “summer break” vibes. Maybe we’re just lucky to live on a street with other families who let their kids play in the streets. While I don’t want to use my small children as car-bait, I do think just getting out and using the streets can have the same effect as the barricades. I bet some motorists see the kids in the street and choose to go around to a different street.

I heard an architect from Jan Gehl’s firm in Copenhagen say “jay-walking is my civic duty” and that’s how I like to think of it too.