Municipalities are notoriously sluggish when it comes to making street-level improvements. Though enhancing the pedestrian and cyclist experience is a near-universal goal for cities, implementation is often slowed down by obstinate neighbors, the requirements of traffic impact studies, a lack of coordinated processes, and everyday bureaucracy. But as the pandemic spread throughout early 2020, those obstacles were eased to facilitate outdoor activity and social distancing, making way for streetscape alterations such as road closures, outdoor dining spaces, and bike lanes.
For Robert B. Noland, Evan Iacobucci, and Wenwen Zhang, in "Public Views on the Reallocation of Street Space Due to COVID-19" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 1), this shift offered "an unprecedented opportunity to assess the popularity and effectiveness of a rapid and comparatively widespread implementation of street space reallocation."
In order to understand how these changes were viewed and how peoples' behavior changed in response to these efforts, the researchers surveyed 1,419 New Jersey residents. They found evidence that the COVID-inspired street changes were popular and could represent an opportunity for cities to rethink their practices around street space allocation and the processes behind it.
The survey found broad awareness of and exposure to the street-level changes: Nearly 80 percent of the sample reported living in an area with alterations, and over 80 percent said they were "exposed to some alteration in the streetscape." Pluralities of respondents said outdoor dining brought vitality to their town centers (45.2 percent strongly agree or agree versus 22.1 percent disagree or totally disagree). The perceived impacts on pedestrian safety were more evenly split (28.7 percent strongly agree or agree versus 28.0 percent disagree or totally disagree). Some felt that walking on sidewalks was more difficult with more than a third of respondents agreeing that sidewalks were more difficult to navigate after the changes, while a third disagreed.
Table 1. While the benefits of COVID-era streetscape alterations are clear to many, some residents also reported some of its consequent problems.
Behaviorally, the researchers detected a moderate increase in walking after the street changes, but in the aggregate, these numbers seemed to mask "a substantial amount of churn in the rates at which people walked." On balance, however, the pandemic-era street changes seem to have encouraged more walking, especially among infrequent walkers and especially in areas where respondents reported interventions having taken place. The changes, it appears, were less evident in aggregate.
The second part of the study focused on whether residents support street space reallocation after the pandemic is no longer an acute threat. While the authors reported that there was 40 percent "... support for continuing to keep streets closed," only 30 percent were opposed and 30 percent were neutral. More significantly, "familiarity with street changes appeared to be correlated with agreeing to keep streets closed after the pandemic," suggesting "familiarity breeds support." Also interestingly, demographic variables were not statistically significantly correlated with perceptions of the street changes.
Despite surveys' methodological limitations, which the authors explicate, the most intriguing aspect of the research was the novel framing of a now-hackneyed topic. Most coverage of pandemic-era street closures and outdoor dining accommodations has been uncritically positive, but more textured and empirical approaches to its social context and the breadth of its support have been largely absent. Street space, especially in highly developed or dense areas, is extremely scarce and therefore its allocation is a highly political exercise in prioritizing uses and users.
Additionally, the study details an instructive example of how the pandemic has reshaped our views of how streets can be used, as well as what we've come to expect from the institutional processes that constitute it. In the way that work-from-home schemes seem to have outlived COVID's immediate threat, so will more equitable allocations of street space — as well as waning patience with bureaucratic red tape that hinders common sense alterations in the street environment.
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About the author
Akiva Blander is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.