by Mehmet Berker, Board Member of Los Angeles Walks
A community block party, pre COVID-19, co-organized with resident partners to help neighbors reimagine a more walkable neighborhood.
As cities across the world respond to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19, some are making temporary changes to the public realm to ensure that people have adequate space to move around. Philadelphia, New York City, and more dramatically Bogotá, Colombia, are closing off some streets or parts of streets for people on bike and foot only. Should Los Angeles do the same?
We at Los Angeles Walks would answer yes, enthusiastically so.
Staying at home is crucial to stemming the tide of the Coronavirus’ spread now that it is here and in our communities. The simple fact is though, that even for Angelenos adhering to the Safer at Home order, some trips outside the house are necessary. Indeed, besides trips for essential services, there are many Angelenos who are still working outside of the home, whether because they work an essential job, have to continue working because of financial necessity, or because an employer won’t allow them time off. Lastly, human beings need exercise, and it is crucial for our overall health during this crisis that we can move our bodies safely, while maintaining social distance.
Simply put, our transportation system will never be 100% shut down. And because of that, we need to ensure the safest system we can at this moment for those using it.
Our resident partners conducting their own walk audit to assess safe street needs in the community.
At all times, Los Angeles Walks advocates for the expansion of the pedestrian realm in Los Angeles. Simply put, there is not enough space on the sidewalks (where they even exist) during normal times -- so there is certainly not enough space for people walking to safely travel while maintaining social distance during these extraordinary times. Our aim is to reallocate our public space and rights of way to create a safe environment for those who must travel or recreate as an essential part of the emergency response.
As such, some policies we ask to be implemented as soon as possible and for the City to plan for how it might keep any of these policies in place as we pass the initial Safer at Home order, the predicted peak of COVID-19 infection in two months’ time, and a possible fall return. The unfortunate truth is we do not know how long we will be living under this new reality, and we should plan accordingly.
- Repurpose lanes on all High Injury Network (HIN) streets into expanded mobility lanes. Flexibility for different existing conditions makes sense, but ideally with at least one lane being repurposed at least eight feet of expanded mobility space will be created -- allowing people biking to pass safely and people walking to have room to socially distance from others on the sidewalk by safely walking in the new mobility lane or stepping off to the side there or in the parkway safely;
A snapshot of the HINs for our partnering communities and neighborhoods.
- Create safe routes to senior centers and parks by providing expanded sidewalk/mobility (for instance, by restricting parking if there's not a travel lane to repurpose);
- Expand all bus stops by taking a parking spot or two next to the stop and the bus pull over area as an expanded "platform". All buses could then stop in the travel lane. Our busiest bus stops could have modular bus stops like this model from ZICLA. Less busy bus stops could have temporary ramps down to street level. Accessibility issues would be crucial here obviously, and ultimately, it may not be possible to “bulb” out all stops. But it should be possible for very many stops to have expanded waiting areas in adjacent parking spots at the least. We advise a contextual approach;
- Reprogram pedestrian push buttons. Pedestrian “Beg Buttons” pose a safety hazard by inviting people to touch a button to activate a pedestrian signal. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles, they have to be manually changed in the field by technicians. The City has rightly started rolling out such reprogrammings, starting in Downtown LA and Hollywood last week, with more neighborhoods coming. We commend the City and encourge them to continue this reprogramming as COVID continues to be a part of our lives;
Quite probably after the Safer at Home restrictions are lifted, institute weekly, regulated, open-street closures to cars. Particularly in communities where access to open space is limited, residents need safe places to be active, and the best quick opportunity to provide that is along LA’s streets. This map, by the Trust for Public Land, highlights locations in LA without a park within a 10-minute walk. The City should either plan for several large street open-street locations that can be implemented weekly or develop a tool allowing residents to create their own open-street closures to cars in locations that minimize disruption to emergency and essential services.
The keys here are two things: 1) that these events are opportunities for local residents to safely recreate, and 2) that these events are overseen/staffed by appropriate governmental personnel like public health employees or rec and parks staff.
More shots from our pre COVID-19 block party where we closed a street for the community.
- At a larger level -- and separated somewhat from the emergency “travel” aspect of these measures, we need to expand parks and open space so people have space to walk, stroll, run, or hang out safely. The City should consider opening golf courses to the public to walk and use for passive recreation, and using closed park parking lots (and other public and private lots) to provide extra space for people to move around. Maybe not in the immediate term, but quite possibly in the medium term, once Safer at Home restrictions are lifted, but while we should still be wary about not having ample space for people to social distance. While we may need increased monitoring and regulation of formal and emergency open spaces during later stages of this crisis, we must find a way to safely do so.
- Finally, just because we’re all stuck home doesn’t mean the City shouldn’t engage the public on these actions. Different communities have different transportation needs and so it is critical that any solution to make our streets safer, both from traffic and the pandemic, be sourced from representative community feedback.
Taken together, these actions will help all Angelenos weather this crisis together while making use of our city’s built environment and open space to help with social distancing compliance. Beyond public spaces, there are people doing critical work around housing, employment, and transportation, like the #HealthyLA Coalition. It is up to all of us to help our community stay safe. We're in this together!
Image from one of our Board Members' walk at the LA State Historic Park, practicing safe social distancing.