Oakland’s ‘Slow Streets’ road closure program ends

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It was an idea born at the start of the pandemic-triggered stay-at-home orders: to close a few blocks in certain residential neighborhoods so that locked-in residents could get outside for fresh air and walk or cycle without having to s out of the way of high-speed cars.

Several Bay Area cities have embraced the so-called “slow streets” concept, as has the growing trend of closing downtown blocks so that restaurants can set up tables on sidewalks, parking lots and driveways. curbside parklets to serve diners who were not permitted inside. .

Today, cities across the region are rethinking how much of their streets to give back to cars. Oakland, which has reserved 21 miles for Safe Streets, is removing many of its barriers. So is Berkeley. Alameda is going the other way, keeping its streets slow for another year. And San Francisco has chosen a middle way: four streets will be slow.

“What we’re seeing now is a time for a ‘slow streets’ evolution,” said Ryan Russo, director of the Oakland Department of Transportation.

“In the initial phases of COVID, the needs of the community were that people were locked down, kids weren’t in school, people had to move around their neighborhoods, there was no football or gymnastics after school,” Russo said.

“There was very little of anything, so we put up these barricades, and people really got out and used the streets to walk and ride scooters,” he added. “But that’s not really the need we have right now. We are in a different phase. The kids go to Little League. We are seeing a decline in this type of use.

At least initially, the program received a lot of positive support, and it enabled many people to use their neighborhood streets for recreation, according to feedback the transportation department got in surveys it conducted.

But the level of support varied by demographics and neighborhoods.

“The problem with slow streets was that they worked differently all over the city. Some areas worked really well, others you might not even notice a difference,” said Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director of Bike East Bay.

While effective at blocking or at least slowing down traffic, the program failed to address some of people’s most pressing security concerns, he said.

For essential workers still commuting to work, as well as many residents of East Oakland neighborhoods, road safety was a bigger concern than providing on-street spaces for physical activity.

In 2020, Oakland police reported an increase in traffic fatalities – 33 people were killed, up from 27 the previous year. According to city documents, speeding, failure to drive and running red lights were among the reckless driving incidents responsible for the surge.

It wasn’t a new trend either. A 2018 report found the city sees about two “serious or fatal” traffic collisions each week, disproportionately involving older adults and people of color who live near the most dangerous streets. The majority of accidents are concentrated on 6% of the approximately 800 miles of streets maintained by the city.

Recognizing these statistics, the city’s transportation department expanded the Slow Streets program in May 2020 to include 15 “essential places.” There, he added additional barriers to help residents get to grocery stores, COVID-19 testing sites and other destinations safely.

At these locations, roadside facilities such as permanent concrete “safety islands” or more permanent barriers will be constructed to protect pedestrians.

During this time, the city will also explore installing traffic-calming measures in Slow Street spots based on planned bike routes, Russo said.

Additionally, the department will try to make it easier for neighborhoods to create “pop-up” slow streets if they want to reclaim blocks for non-car related activities. Currently, block party permits that close streets require efforts such as asking neighbors to sign them.

Russo said Slow Streets and programs like it seem to have changed the way many people think about how they can reuse their streets temporarily or for good. Businesses that once may have been wary of adding bike lanes or reducing road lanes have seen how beneficial changes in street usage can be.

“It’s an awareness of what our right of way can be. We are truly stewards of the public right of way, which is such an important asset to the community,” Russo said. “There is still so much potential of what these spaces can do.”

The Department of Transportation will provide an update on its changes to slow streets at the virtual meeting of the Cyclists and Pedestrians Advisory Board on January 20 at 6 p.m. The meeting is open to the public and at https://www.oaklandca.gov/meetings/reunion-de-la-commission-consultative-des-cyclistes-et-des-pietons-bpac-jan-2022.

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