Some streets closed during the pandemic to allow pedestrians will remain car-free
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Early in the pandemic, people were desperate for more room to recreate outdoors. All over the country, local officials experimented with closing roads to car traffic to give residents more space. Now, the vast majority of those roads have reopened to motor vehicles. But some of these temporary pandemic measures have proven overwhelmingly popular, leading to long-term changes.
On a recent cold and windy morning, a few dozen people gathered in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park to celebrate the permanent closure to cars of the main roadway through the large forested park.
"I cannot tell you how much stress has been lifted, not having to worry about the car that's going to pass me unsafely," says Diane Bolton, who biked to the party with her 8-year-old son.
For decades, the twisting two-lane Beach Drive was a busy commuter thoroughfare for drivers heading into downtown Washington, handling 7,000 to 8,000 cars a day. Now, says Bolton, the road is filled with people "cycling, walking, hiking, scooting, Rollerblading, you name it."
The National Park Service initially closed nearly 3 miles of Beach Drive to cars in April 2020.
"We kept thinking that it would be, you know, three months, six months — OK, a year," said Julia Washburn, superintendent of the park. "We just kept extending it because COVID kept going much longer than any of us had ever anticipated. During that time, some people started to say, 'Well, why don't we keep it closed?' "
"People loved it"
In fact, people had been asking to close Beach Drive to cars for decades, but it took a global public health crisis to finally make it happen.
"The pandemic really allowed for things to accelerate far faster than they normally would have, in terms of broad public acceptance," said Stephan Schmidt, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, who has studied pandemic street closures.
Pre-pandemic, there was a movement in many cities to reallocate some of the public space long dominated by the automobile: taking out parking spaces to make way for protected bike lanes, closing arterial streets for one-day events, implementing "road diets" to make streets slower and safer, and limiting motorized access to parks.
When the pandemic hit, with everyone except essential workers hunkered down at home, all those lanes of asphalt crisscrossing the nation were suddenly not needed for the daily commute.
Schmidt's research found that 157 municipalities in 35 states experimented with closing streets to vehicular traffic in 2020 and 2021. But most of these experiments ended quickly: 84% were designated as temporary from the start, and 94% were over within six months.
Some of the changes, though, were too popular to switch back easily. In Washington, D.C., park officials proposed a compromise: bringing back cars nine months a year. The proposal was met with an onslaught of opposition from residents who had come to enjoy the car-free roadway.
"Everybody jumped all over them and said, 'Wait, that's not a fair compromise, that's not splitting the baby,' " said Peter Harnik, a local cyclist and activist. "We don't even think you should split the baby, but if you're going to split the baby, let's split it a lot more fair than that."
During a public comment period, NPS received 3,696 correspondences, 67% of which supported a year-round closure. Only 9% supported the NPS-preferred seasonal closure, while just 4% supported returning to the pre-pandemic status, with the road open to cars year-round.
In San Francisco, a similar story played out when the city temporarily closed JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park.
"People loved it," said roller skater David Miles Jr. "When the road is closed to traffic, it's just transformed into a playground, a wonderful playground."
Miles is known as San Francisco's godfather of skate. He's been pushing the city since the 1980s to limit car traffic on the road, or close it altogether.
In April, Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors approved a permanent closure. Then in November, the issue went before San Francisco voters. The proposition to keep cars out won by 25 percentage points.
Miles was at a roller disco watch party when the news broke on election night.
"I think it was the happiest day I've ever experienced in San Francisco," he said.
Concerns about access and traffic
Of course, taking away space from cars is always going to spark opposition. In San Francisco, some disability rights advocates say the closure makes it harder for them to get to certain parts of the park.
"Everyone knows there's a strong anti-car movement — it's anti-car, but it's also anti-people who rely on cars," said San Francisco resident Howard Chabner, who sponsored the failed ballot measure to reopen JFK Drive to cars.
Chabner, who gets around in a power wheelchair, says most seniors and people with disabilities oppose the car-free configuration.
"There is no doubt whatsoever," he said.
In D.C., some residents who live near Rock Creek Park complain of an increase in car traffic spilling onto other streets.
"I am concerned for the safety of children in my neighborhood," said Patience Singleton, an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, in an email to NPR. "Closing Beach Drive to cars diverts traffic into surrounding neighborhoods."
Singleton, who represents a neighborhood next to the park, says the closed road would be better used for handling car traffic.
"While cars are backed up on our neighborhood residential streets, Beach Drive is barely utilized," she said.
A traffic study conducted by Washington's transportation department found the closure of Beach Drive would add 2.5 to 4.5 minutes to rush-hour commutes, slowing traffic by 4 to 6 miles per hour.
A "return to normalcy" and a return to traffic
In more car-dependent cities, temporary road closures didn't have the same groundswell of support as in places like Washington, San Francisco and New York City, which started closing roads in Central Park in 2015.
Still, the temporary reconfigurations may have made residents more open to future changes.
In Memphis, the city closed a section of road along the Mississippi River to car traffic early in the pandemic. Carol Coletta, president of the nonprofit Memphis River Parks Partnership, says residents immediately began to interact with the waterfront in a new way. More people used the closed Riverside Drive than the park next to it, Coletta says.
"Most of us only know what we know. We only know what we've seen. We only know what we've experienced," she said.
In Memphis, "most people had never experienced the ability to get out and just walk freely on a street unconcerned with cars and safety," Coletta said.
Riverside Drive reopened to cars in March 2021 after pressure from downtown neighborhood associations, which were concerned about an increase in traffic on other streets.
Although it was short-lived, Coletta says, the temporarily car-free street helped Memphians imagine something different.
"Once you see it, then you go, 'Wait, that's not impossible for us to do,' " Coletta said.
Zabe Bent, director of design with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, agrees that even temporary street closures can have a lasting impact.
"One of the lessons is that you can do things differently. We can use streets differently," Bent said. "Of course, another lesson is that we can move quickly when needed, and be iterative in our process."
In the early days of the pandemic, Bent says, cities tried out all sorts of uses for public space usually taken up by cars. There was the ubiquitous outdoor dining, of course, where parked cars gave way to "streateries," but also things like food distribution and housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Jeff Speck, a city planner based in Boston, says part of the reason many road closures ended was because of how they were initially proposed: as short-term solutions amid a public health crisis.
"I think some of it is this idea of 'return to normalcy.' So if normal is cars and we want everyone to feel like COVID is over — we're moving forward — we're going to go back to cars," Speck said.
A decade ago, Speck authored the book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. The book is now out in a new edition, including a section on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have built a landscape over the last 60, 70 years, in many cases with the underlying presumption that you will have a car to get around, you will need a car to get around," Speck says. "In that context, it's very natural to slip back into that lifestyle of giving as many lanes as possible to drivers."
A century of conflict over cars
In Washington, the conflict over cars in Rock Creek Park goes back to the very invention of the automobile. The park was created by Congress in 1890 as "a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States." At the time, "driving" would have referred to horse-drawn carriages, not automobiles.
In 1918, a park master plan warned against allowing the "noise and tangle" of motorized traffic into the heart of Rock Creek valley.
By 1934, a park report declared, "The automobile can be designated as one of the greatest detriments to the enjoyment of Rock Creek Park today."
"What had started off as a very bucolic carriage drive became a pretty way of driving to work," says activist Peter Harnik, with the group the People's Alliance for Rock Creek.
Harnik and the grassroots group have been fighting to close Beach Drive to cars since the 1980s. Harnik says that sustained advocacy was what made the difference in places like Washington compared to somewhere like Memphis, where the road has been reopened to cars.
"I'd say that what put us over the top was the fact that we had an organized effort. We had a clear goal in mind and we maintained our constituency," Harnik said.
Rock Creek Park Superintendent Washburn says the change to a car-free road likely would never have happened if not for the pandemic.
"The pandemic gave us a chance to try it out and see how it worked," Washburn said.
But she also points to a more gradual cultural shift. The last time the park service considered limiting motorized access in Rock Creek was nearly 20 years ago.
"We were much more of a car culture," says Washburn. "The city didn't want us to do it — there was just strong opposition, and so we didn't."
But, while that car culture may not have such a strong hold now, Washburn says she's not closing any other roads in the park.
"I don't want anyone to be upset about that or concerned," she said. "All the other roads are remaining open."
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