Streets are for people. We build them to make our lives easier — but then watch as they cause so much suffering in the form of soul-crushing traffic and serious injuries. Last year, many of us were working hard to make the roads in Montgomery County, Maryland safer for everyone. We argued passionately over what Vision Zero meant and how it could be implemented in our neighborhoods. We advocated for pedestrians, held vigils for people killed in horrific crashes, and pushed for more protected bike lanes, hoping for a day when there would be zero fatalities on our streets and less pollution in the air from cars.
Then, a global pandemic called COVID-19 sidelined drivers all over the world. Everyone went into lockdown at home and tried not to travel too far Stores closed. Schools closed. Churches and synagogues closed. Offices closed.
At one point, I remember walking with a friend who wondered outloud if pedestrian safety had experienced its moment in the headlines, and if that moment was over. She doubted people would ever want to talk about it again, given the drama of the raging illness.
But the lockdown had the opposite effect. Streets which had once been full were open. Pedestrians ruled the day, and walking and bike-riding became the new norm.
Suddenly, we were handed an opportunity to rethink our roads for the sake of our general health. We asked local authorities to let us use the strangely empty stretches of asphalt for recreation during the odd, quiet Spring while we tried to “flatten the curve.” The parks became a place that felt almost magical without the cars speeding through their “parkways” on the weekends.
As things slowly re-opened, we asked if we could also use empty parking spaces in urban downtown districts to help businesses re-open safely – by filling the empty or almost empty streets with outdoor dining and plaza-like, socially-distant seating.
Now, we find ourselves in a new paradigm with the dreaded illness. Rush hour has yet to return (thank God), but traffic levels are picking up again. There are lots of people who are working from home for the foreseeable future, maybe for years to come. And others struggling to find a way to get work anywhere they can, any way they can. As many people head back to work and the economy lurches and heaves in an unsteady way, there are still lots of space to consider options other than cars.
While scientists argue about whether mass transit is safe or a place where COVID can be quickly spread, many people remain hesitant to use crowded buses or trains. It seems like this might be the time to finally elevate bikes from being devices for recreation and realize their potential in our community as tools of transportation. With open lanes available and people needing options, now is the time to pilot some new bike lanes in places we had never even dreamed were possible.
Since the pandemic started, a group of us has been diligently advocating for “open streets” or “shared streets” – which really has meant rethinking transportation arteries in this county to be for the people. People on bikes and people on foot. People in wheelchairs and people pushing strollers. People wanting or needing to get around safely without cars. Now is the time to be creative, flexible and innovative.
You can find and join our group on Facebook at Open Streets Montgomery.