On any given neighborhood street these days, it’s likely you’ll find someone running, walking or riding a bike in the middle of the road. Pedestrians and bicyclists have taken over the asphalt since social distancing measures are asking people to maintain a six-foot distance between one another, and sidewalks just don’t offer that sort of luxury.
But a new program the city of Eugene is about to launch could officially allow pedestrians to take back the streets as a way to encourage more space for active lifestyles during COVID-19, as well as chip away at the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and create a safe space for people to use healthier transportation methods.
Cities opening streets for pedestrians isn’t a new idea, and Eugene is hardly the first to explore it. More than 200 U.S. cities are experimenting with the idea since the pandemic forced social distancing measures, according to data from the website PedBikeInfo.
Eugene residents have been pushing the city to explore the idea, and on June 4, the city announced that it would launch an Open Streets program.
Cas Casados, the city’s transportation programs coordinator, says the city of Eugene was observing how other cities were executing the program before jumping in.
“In other cities, it has been done rather quickly, and those cities have had a lot of learning,” she says. “The benefit of doing this later is that we’re able to learn from those cities.”
Casados says that the Active Bethel Citizens neighborhood group recently voted to support a set of open streets in their neighborhood, making it the first neighborhood to participate in the program. The streets will open mid-July and will have several connected streets in south Bethel to create a safer space for residents to walk and bike to nearby parks, a nearby grocery store, a restaurant, Family Fun Center and summer lunch sites.
She adds that more sites will launch on a rolling basis throughout the summer in other city neighborhoods.
The program is an idea similar to the annual Sunday Streets, where motor traffic is shut off from downtown, but don’t confuse the two as the same thing.
A street categorized as an open street will have a barricade and sign that notifies drivers they’re entering “open traffic,” Casados says. Although pedestrians and human-powered vehicles will run the road, she adds that residents, emergency vehicles and essential vehicles like garbage trucks will still be able to access the street.
The program should run through mid-September but could be extended or expanded to other areas depending on reception.
Marc Schlossberg is a University of Oregon professor in the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management and co-director and co-founder of the Sustainable Cities Institute. He says the idea of open streets is restoring a public space that has been taken over for movement and storage of vehicles.
Since fewer people are driving during the pandemic, Schlossberg says it’s an opportunity to have people change their habits and start walking and biking in the streets. He says a “smart, sustainable city” is one that takes the habits from the past couple months during the pandemic and make them more possible in everyday, regular life.
Data from the city of Eugene shows that traffic volume around 6th and Jefferson before COVID-19 was at an average of 13,768 vehicles a day. When social distancing measures were implemented mid-March, traffic plummeted to 9,180. But traffic has been slowly rising again.
Although the city of Eugene has bike infrastructure and designated lanes for cyclists, a 2019 study published in the Accident Analysis and Prevention journal suggests a painted stripe isn’t enough. The study was conducted in Melbourne, Australia, but the research shows one in 17 passing motorists came within 3.2 feet of a cyclist.
As more people are buying bicycles as a way to exercise because gyms are either closed or limited in services, Casados says the Open Streets program is a safe space for people new to biking to bike to travel to restaurants, businesses and grocery stores.
“A lot of people are trying out biking right now. We want to show people where they can go on the bikes. Pick up, take out, by bike or on foot,” she says. “This program would help us show people to do that and a safer space to learn.”
Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization said at a May 14 press conference that COVID-19 may never disappear and could be another epidemic like HIV/AIDs. If that’s the case, social distancing measures could change how cities function. And that means mass transit options like buses could be depended upon less, Schlossberg says
Schlossberg says it’s time to reconsider transit options like bicycling to avoid having more cars on the road.
“Unless we want more car trips to happen, we need to find transit-complementary ways of moving,” he says. “You’re not going to substitute a transit trip with a walk trip. If anything, you’re going to substitute with a car trip or a bike trip. If we’re serious about our climate and public health, we want it to be a bike trip.”
The Open Streets program is a way to address the city’s Climate Action Plan, as well. According to the city’s greenhouse gas emission inventory from 2017, transportation is responsible for the most emissions: 53 percent comes from passenger and freight transportation.
Schlossberg says a wider implementation of an Open Streets program that allows for increased healthier modes of transportation, while cutting the number of private vehicles, is the only way for the city to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Having more electric cars instead of fossil fuel-powered vehicles isn’t enough, he adds. People have to walk, bike and use mass transit more.
And if the Open Streets program catches on, it’s a way to make public spaces more inclusive for everyone and reclaim space that vehicles have captured.
“We have this vast public space in front of where everyone lives,” he says. “To actually open up that space that people can use it on foot, on bike, on skateboard, pogo stick or whatever? All of a sudden there’s opportunities to really enhance the public space for everyone in our community.”
Visit Eugene-or.gov/486/Transportation for updates.