In the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Oakland decided to create car-free streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. As more American cities copy Oakland’s “Slow Streets” initiative, it’s safe to say the Bay Area city was onto something.
This initiative began on April 11 when Oakland’s DOT closed about 5 miles of neighborhood streets to through traffic. The Slow Streets program’s primary goal has always been to give pedestrians and bicyclists more space to practice social distancing.
The first Slow Streets in Oakland included portions of 42nd Street, Arthur Street, West Street, and E 16th Street. Since that time, Oakland DOT has created about 20 miles of Slow Streets throughout 19 corridors. If all goes according to plan, the city will eventually have 74 miles of Slow Streets.
Technically, the only vehicles allowed on Slow Streets are emergency vehicles, public transit, and residents’ cars. Although the city won’t penalize drivers who use Slow Streets, the DOT encourages people to stay on the main roads.
Keep in mind: just because cars aren’t allowed on Slow Streets doesn’t mean residents could organize a street party. To fight the spread of COVID-19, Oakland has banned all large gatherings, including on Slow Streets.
For optimal safety, the California Department of Public Health orders all residents wear face coverings when out in public, even when walking on Slow Streets. Although you’re not required to wear a face-covering while biking or running, health experts encourage people to carry a facemask at all times.
If you wear a facemask while exercising, you should wash it immediately when you get home. CA health officials claim facemasks exposed to heavy breathing and sweat carry higher traces of harmful bacteria.
So far, the community response to Oakland’s Slow Streets has been largely positive. Many parents who live on these streets say they feel safer letting their kids play outside—especially once “corona cabin fever” sets in.
Shortly after Oakland started its Slow Streets initiative, many other cities began experimenting with car-free zones. For instance, NYC recently blocked off seven miles to cars in their “Open Streets” program. The City of Minneapolis has also created “Stay Healthy Streets” to help pedestrians and bicyclists stay six feet apart.
Now that many cities have adopted the Slow Streets initiative, some Americans wonder whether it will “ramp up” or “stall” in the post-COVID era. Although most cities say they are committed to protecting bicyclists and pedestrians, there’s no official word whether car-free streets will become permanent.
Many pedestrian safety advocates hope Slow Streets could serve as a blueprint for the future of urban design. Even NYC’s famous former Traffic Commissioner Samuel I. Schwartz—better known as “Gridlock Sam”—has publicly supported car-free streets.