COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Need to Rethink the Use of Public Space

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous changes in American life. Among these are attempts to find ways to be outside without a major risk of exposure to COVID-19. The pandemic is thus the perfect opportunity to rethink the way government use public space in the United States, particularly in cities.

One significant way to reimagine the use of public space is to open streets up to account for increased foot and bike traffic. Governments can accomplish this in a number of ways, from widening sidewalks, narrowing traffic lanes, to simply closing the street altogether.[1] New York City is a prime example of this and has done a reasonable job at attempting to transform some of its streets for residents.[2] New York City has also expanded outdoor restaurant cafes, which residents have met with wide acclaim and outdoor seating, expanded patios, and closing down some streets to vehicle traffic should be the standard.[3] Paris has also undergone a significant transformation in the last several years which other governments can follow.[4] Furthermore, a reduction in the number of parking spaces can also fundamentally reorient streets and how governments use that space.

This also ties into the larger broken way which local government in the United States runs transportation policy, often by using broken models which falsely show that expanding highways will reduce traffic.[5] Governments have often used this ineffective policy as a justification for and to lead to an orientation of cities around highways and vehicle traffic. This orientation often has a racist element to it, particularly regarding where highways are placed and which communities governments effectively destroyed.[6] These results of this policy make it hard not to see a parallel with redlining.[7] However, this does not need to be the case and cities should reorient their focus on other means of transportation.

Transportation policy in cities should be fundamentally reoriented around public transportation, which transports a significantly higher number of people per day then vehicle traffic, is routinely much faster, and helps to tackle the looming climate crisis.[8] Focusing public space around subways, trains, buses, and bike lanes will transform public spaces and open them up to a wider variety of people. Bike lanes are routinely one of the quickest ways to avoid traffic in cites. Simple improvements, including protected bike lanes, lower speed limits, and less interactions between bikes and vehicles can reduce the risk of injury and make bikes and important part of American cities.[9] Focusing on improving trains, subways, and buses is important to ensuring governments can reimagine public space. All of these types of transportation are capable of transporting vastly more people than traditional vehicle traffic and do so faster.[10] All of these options pose less of a cost burden on individuals, and government can even make them free at the point of service.[11] These uses of transportation are compatible with different public uses of space and will open up many areas for a reimaging of public use by reducing the number of vehicle trips.

Another way to reclaim public space is to rethink how communities use public parks. Cities routinely do not have enough park space and often shut existing parks down once it gets dark. With people continuing to face ongoing social distancing for some time, increased public space is rapidly becoming a necessity to allow people to escape the confines of their own homes in a safe manner. It is time for public officials to stop shaming people for going outdoors and instead embrace it, to encourage safer ways of both spending time outside and enjoying social interactions. It is also important to pass laws legalizing open containers. People have routinely flaunted these laws, and increasingly so during the ongoing pandemic. Law enforcement often enforces these laws in a racist and selective manner, leaving them effectively null for many groups of people.[12] There is no good justification for allowing public consumption in bars but not in neighboring parks. Governments routinely have laws against drunk and disorderly conduct and law enforcement can used them to halt any dangerous. Encouraging residents of cities to congregate outside in safe manners instead of inside in bars and restaurants is an ongoing public health imperative, while not allowing them to do so serves no worthwhile public policy purpose. In addition to this, it is time for publicly accessible restrooms. As those with nowhere else to go have long known, finding a publically available restroom is a near impossibility in the United States. This serves no useful purpose other than to stigmatize those who are unable to afford to use restrooms. Public restrooms would help to keep our cities cleaner and help those without access.[13]

It is also important when implementing these changes that governments do not limit them to specific neighborhoods and instead are equitably spread out to enable all residents to make use of them.[14]

It is time to reclaim public space for pedestrian use and start a radical rethinking of how public space is used and oriented. Opening up public spaces to foot and bike traffic is an important long-term goal and crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments should reorient cities away from focusing on cars and towards making needed improvements to public transportation, parks, and other public spaces to enable residents of cities to enjoy our shared spaces more equally and equitably.

 

[1] Caroline Splvack, NYC is opening 12 more miles of open streets-from Fort Greene to Flushing, Curbed (May 13, 2020 1:29 PM), https://ny.curbed.com/2020/5/13/21257212/nyc-open-streets-12-miles-biking-coronavirus.

[2] Id.

[3] Pete Wells, Outdoor Dining Offers Fresh Air and Fantasy to a City That Needs Both, The New York Times (July 14, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/dining/outdoor-dining-design-nyc-coronavirus.html.

[4] Jeff McMahon, How Bike Lanes Are Transforming Paris, Forbes (Dec 28, 2019 12:00 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/12/28/how-bike-lanes-are-transforming-paris/#43638b79f620.

[5] Aaron Gordon, The Broken Algorithm That Poisoned American Transportation, Motherboard: Tech by Vice (August 24, 2020 8:00 AM), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v7gxy9/the-broken-algorithm-that-poisoned-american-transportation-v27n3.

[6] Bradford P. Sherman, Racial Bias and Interstate Highway Planning: A Mixed Methods Approach, Uni. Of Penn. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, 56 (2014).

[7] Tracy Jan, Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today, The Washington Post (March 28, 2018 6:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/28/redlining-was-banned-50-years-ago-its-still-hurting-minorities-today/.

[8] Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/PublicTransportationsRoleInRespondingToClimateChange2010.pdf (last visited August 30, 2020).

 

[9] David Roberts, No helmets, no problem: how the Dutch created a casual biking culture, Vox (Dec 26, 2018 10:42 AM), https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/8/28/17789510/bike-cycling-netherlands-dutch-infrastructure.

[10] Tom Babin, What’s really the fastest way to commute, bike, car, plane, helicopter or tricycle?, The Calgary Herald (July 21, 2011), https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/whats-really-the-fastest-way-to-commute-bike-car-plane-helicopter-or-tricycle.

[11] Justin George, D.C. Council member proposes free public transit for resident, The Washington Post (March 1, 2020 5:00 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/dc-council-member-proposes-free-public-transit-for-residents/2020/03/01/62a5a2ca-5a8f-11ea-9000-f3cffee23036_story.html.

[12] Danny Lewis, As COVID-19 Drives NYers To Drink Outside, The NYPD Is Still Overwhelmingly Ticketing People Of Color, Gothamist (July 28, 2020 8:12 AM), https://gothamist.com/news/covid-19-drives-new-yorkers-drink-outdoors-nypd-still-overwhelmingly-ticketing-people-color.

[13] Marc Fisher, The need to go is a big barrier to going out. Why public bathrooms are a stumbling block for reopening., The Washington Post (May 18, 2020 2:11 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coronavirus-reopen-bathrooms/2020/05/18/a6ed57fc-93ba-11ea-82b4-c8db161ff6e5_story.html.

[14] Bethan B. Cutts, Kate J. Darby, Christopher G. Boone, & Alexandra Brewis, City structure, obesity, and environmental justice: An integrated analysis of physical and social barriers to walkable streets and park access, 69 Social Science & Medicine, 9 (2009).

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