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Can closing some Atlanta streets during COVID-19 help transportation for all?

The City of Atlanta should be leading the way as an example of how to handle special needs for people without cars during a pandemic.

Seattle has become the latest in a string of international and U.S. cities to announce the closure of streets to cars so that pedestrians can have room for distancing during essential trips and exercise during the pandemic.

Many Atlantans have been understandably jealous of headlines like these. It’s difficult for pedestrian and cycling advocates to watch open streets unfold in cities elsewhere, but not here. For parents who want to have more space for their kids to be active, or for people trying to get around safely on long walks during the closure of many MARTA bus routes, it’s hard to not want some repurposing of street space.

For some, the frustration escalated when our local bike and pedestrian advocacy groups announced their lack of support for open streets initiatives. Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and PEDS stated that they are not going to pursue extra physical distancing lanes or slow streets during the pandemic, at least for now.

The organizations say this is partly because closing streets to cars could result in “unwelcome enforcement for Black and Brown people, who already face higher risk of negative police interaction,” and also because they feel equitable public input would be difficult at this time — excellent concerns for PEDS and ABC to voice and kudos to them for setting this tone. And it’s well worth your time to read through the “Untokening Collective’s Mobility Justice and COVID-19” document that informed their position.

Narrow pedestrian path in Atlanta. How do you safely distance on a sidewalk that looks like this?

Meanwhile, several locals have taken to Twitter to engage with Atlanta’s DOT chief Josh Rowan, only to be disappointed when they find out that he is consistently pushing back on the many calls for opening streets in Atlanta to pedestrians and closing them to cars.

But a new twist has emerged this week: two members of City Council, Amir Farokhi (District 2, Northeast Atlanta) and Jennifer Ide (District 6, also Northeast Atlanta), introduced a non-binding resolution calling on Atlanta’s DOT to repurpose some streets or car lanes for pedestrian and bike use during COVID-19.

Is the City of Atlanta finally starting to take a strong role in researching and handling the special needs of people getting around without cars during a pandemic? If so, that’s good news. But there are important questions to ask. What can we do to provide pandemic-era services that serve the diverse needs of the city today? Unless Atlanta is very intentional with an engagement process that successfully identifies all concerns, we may end up repeating the experience in Oakland, CA.

In that city, support for recent “soft closures” of streets was not representative of all residents. According to the web site for the initiative:

“Those responding were more likely to be White, have high incomes and live in North Oakland. However, data from Alameda County Public Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that East Oaklanders and people of color are more likely to suffer harm from this pandemic. Over the last few weeks Oakland Slow Streets staff have been working to address this divide by engaging community-based organizations in East Oakland and other vulnerable neighborhoods, and working together to disseminate surveys and ensure that any COVID-19-related transportation solutions are meeting community members’ needs during this pandemic.”

Here’s an opportunity for the City of Atlanta to learn a lesson from Oakland (and others) by laying the groundwork for proactive engagement with the full range of residents during a crisis that’s hurting people of color disproportionately , while emphasizing the voices of people with the most critical needs.

For instance, the city can lead discussions about the potential for tactical street repurposing (or any other need identified), while giving residents localized control and agency for providing an essential service for neighbors who need to reach destinations without a car.

Terrible sidewalks, like this one on Spring Street, can be found all over the city. It’s possible that quick fixes for them would be a big help during COVID-19, for distancing.

It’s possible that what’s helpful in some areas is open streets, and in other areas it might be quick fixes to sidewalks, or safer and more frequent crosswalks, or some kind of easily-sanitized shuttle service (in which case partnering with MARTA on the information gathering would be smart). Just throwing out possible results here. What’s key is the engagement.

It won’t be easy to engage people when gatherings are dangerous, but there are plenty of outlets available for helping the city to cover as many bases as possible: Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs), neighborhood associations, Community Investment Districts (CIDs), non-profit organizations, public schools and parents groups…all these entities have potential to work with the city for good results.

This kind of effort isn’t simply about giving people extra space for recreation and exercise (though that in itself is important, per the CDC’s own recommendations).

It’s about the businesses that rely on foot traffic, tentatively opening and trying to stay afloat. Could they use extra space for lining up people on sidewalks outside their stores in safe distances? It’s about the restaurants that could possibly use some street space for distanced cafe tables.

And it’s about all the people on the sidewalks for essential reasons — walking to and from the bus, frontline jobs, doctor’s appointments, and more. And the people walking further due to the absence of their bus routes given MARTA’s route reductions. They shouldn’t have to risk their lives by veering into the paths of cars just to physically distance from each other while walking, and they shouldn’t have to lose out on essential trips due to avoidance of rough conditions.

They shouldn’t have to bear the onus for reaching out to the city with their own ideas during a crisis. Atlanta leaders should be reaching out to them and drawing out the information needed for providing mobility help during a crisis that will potentially last a while.

The photo at the top of this post is of bad pedestrian conditions on Buford Highway in Brookhaven (photo courtesy of Marian Liou). Things are tough all over the region, and the City of Atlanta should be leading the way as an example of how to handle special needs for people without cars during a pandemic.

Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the Farokhi/Ide resolution with this statement: “Undoubtedly, this was in response to voices in their NE Atlanta districts calling for the same action that’s been happening in cities worldwide.” Councilmember Farokhi countered this on Twitter saying that they “heard from folks all over” and not just in their districts, and DOT chief Josh Rowan tweeted that this was true.