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Why Some Neighborhoods Do Not Want a ‘Slow Street’

Well-intentioned transportation projects during the COVID-19 pandemic to slow or remove traffic from city streets tended to serve mostly wealthy, white neighborhoods, said equity activists at the CoMotion LA conference.

Pike Street in Seattle, Wash., nearly empty on May 20, 2020
Pike Street in Seattle, Wash., nearly empty on May 20, 2020. (Michael J Magee/Shutterstock)
Michael J Magee/Shutterstock
Slowing down streets and giving the right of way to bikes and walkers during the COVID-19 pandemic has been praised by many in transportation and community development circles. 

It was seen as the sort of common sense step for government to take when traffic all but vanished across cities as residents suddenly began working from home while also scaling back family extracurriculars. These moves, however, were often hastily arranged in what some activists say were namely in more well-to-do white neighborhoods, and they may have — if not exacerbated inequality — most certainly exposed it. 

“I think a lot of people saw it as this opportunity… to polish off agendas that they had,” said Naomi Doerner, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Nelson/Nygaard, a transportation planning consulting firm. Doerner was speaking on a panel at the CoMotion LA conference on Wednesday dedicated to “rethinking our urban spaces.” 

The open and slow streets programs launched almost overnight in a number of cities, said Doerner, and they mostly benefited white neighborhoods where people were working from home. These projects have also been criticized for bypassing the standard community approval process where various stakeholders and others weigh in.  

“We were getting tremendous pressure from the wealthy west side of this city, where not driving became a luxury, who had the benefit of working from home,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, also speaking on the panel, adding, “who were looking out their window everyday and thinking, 'I would like to ride my bike, and teach my kid to ride a bike in the streets.'” 

The Los Angeles DoT’s approach was to allow some neighborhoods to move forward with plans to initiate slow streets programs, while acknowledging these projects were not appropriate — or even desired — in other neighborhoods.

Black and low-income communities “were the ones still on transit. They were the ones who were driving more because as they lost their jobs in retail and service industries, they fell into jobs in the gig economy where driving itself was a job,” said Reynolds.  

Biking and walking in the street “was not interesting for them because they weren’t working from home. And No. 2, was not a thing that inspired excitement,” she added. 

Instead, disadvantaged communities called for more investment in business-supporting initiatives like outdoor dining. The city earmarked half of the money it had set aside for COVID-related transportation changes to support outdoor dining placed in those communities, said Reynolds. 

“When you actually empower a community to design their solutions you come up with things that look very different from whatever your pre-pandemic agenda might have been,” said Reynolds. 

“Opportunism is not a permission slip for nonsense. Because what that opportunism would have shortcut is exactly the thing that we’ve all been talking about. And that is listening. Sitting down. Being humble. Shutting up. And listening,” she added.

Other city transportation leaders have said slow streets projects were not automatically doled out to the neighborhoods with high numbers of work-from-home residents. Cities like Seattle and Minneapolis followed already established routes identified as ideal for biking or pedestrian activity. In Minneapolis these routes were known as “bicycle boulevards.” 

“They’re lower volume streets for cars. And we already think that they’re desirable places for people to walk and bike.” 

“We’ve already gone through a process to determine that they are routes that people want to be on,” said Matthew Dyrdahl, a transportation planner and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in Minneapolis, in an interview with Government Technology last month. 

This reasoning aside, the pandemic has served as a reminder to city officials to ensure that even the best intentioned projects receive a fair vetting across segments and populations in the city. 

“I like to take a pause and say, is this really an opportunity, or are we responding to a crisis? And when you think of it in that way, it reframes how you’re going to approach the moment,” said Doerner. 

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 Yreka, Calif.