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New Guidelines Suggest Taking Voting to the Streets

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has added polling to its list of activities cities can consider repurposing streets for, as the nation prepares for a presidential election amid a pandemic.

A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic
A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic in an effort to accommodate outdoor dining areas that comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. The street is open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology
Add voting to the list of activities streets can accommodate.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has added voting to its growing list of activities streets can accommodate during the COVID-19 crisis. Known as “Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery,” NACTO released its guidelines regarding transitioning streets to other purposes like active transportation, or even dining, in June.

This week, as the nation inches closer to the national election in November — with early voting already underway in a number of regions — NACTO revised its streets guidelines to offer insight to cities which may consider designing outdoor areas to accommodate voters at polling places.

“There are numerous ways that streets and sidewalks can be used,” said Alex Engel, a NACTO spokesperson. “Depending on the location, it won't necessarily mean a full polling location on the street. It may mean a place for people to queue while they wait to cast their ballot, or to drop off their ballot into a drop-off box.

“City DoTs will not be running elections, but stand ready to assist when asked to by local election officials,” he added.

The “Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery” document addresses a number of uses being carved out of city streets, as cities across the nation have responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking often unprecedented steps to use the public right-of-way in ways which enable residents to gather and move safely, as well as serve business interests. In countless cities, entire blocks have been commandeered for outdoor dining, or given preference to pedestrian and bike activity.

“It would be an understatement to say that COVID-19 has truly impacted our cities and transportation. It’s done so in many ways,” said Rodney Stiles, head of policy at Populus, a digital platform to help cities better manage curbs and streets, during a recent virtual panel discussion with other transportation officials.

This movement, known loosely as “slow streets,” has the possibility of upending years of urban design policy around how much public space cities should yield to personal vehicles. The NACTO document offers guidelines for, say, pickup and delivery zones, markets, transit lanes — all uses which could fit into what has always been the typical auto travel lane.

“More cities are starting to reconsider how they want to re-invent themselves from an urban planning perspective. And the slow-streets movement that we’re starting to see is one example of that,” said Chelsea Sexton, co-founder of Plugin America, in comments during a webinar hosted by Forth back in May to discuss the future of electric transportation.

“So is the bicycle shortage becoming the new toilet paper shortage?” she remarked, calling attention to the nagging shortage of bathroom tissue consumers encountered during the pandemic’s earliest days. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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