The coronavirus will change life as we know it in many ways — some small and some large. As a result of the health emergency, traffic in once busy downtown areas has dwindled to a trickle of cars. As a result, many cities have closed portions of public streets to allow people to go for a walk or ride bicycles without violating social distancing requirements.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week that 20 miles of public roads will be closed permanently to through traffic, according to the Seattle Times. Only residents, delivery drivers, and refuse vehicles will be allowed to drive on the closed streets. The mayor pledged to continue expanding options for people to safely walk and bike around the city.
That includes accelerated construction of bike infrastructure and reprogramming traffic signals to allow pedestrians more time to cross the road. Instead of pushing a button to request a walk signal, about 75% of the nearly 600 walking signals in denser parts of Seattle, including downtown, will be automated so people don’t need to touch a surface to get across a street safely.
“As we’re looking across our budget landscape, we’re doing everything we can to fill that significant deficit we have but we also know there are projects we’ve got to continue and accelerate to invest in the city we want to be when we come out of this,” the mayor said. “That’s going to include a range of programs, both those that help people most in need and programs that really improve the public realm and public infrastructure.”
Sam Zimbabwe, head of the Seattle department of transportation, says, “Our rapid response to the challenges posed by COVID-19 have been transformative in a number of places across the city. Some of the responses are going to be long lasting and we need to continue to build out a transportation system that enables people of all ages and abilities to bike and walk across the city.” Over the next couple of weeks, SDOT will replace temporary closure signs with permanent markings that guide drivers to other routes. The cost of the program is estimated at between $100,000 and $200,000.
Zimbabwe said cities across the country are reevaluating their streets amid the pandemic. “We’re all looking to each other, and Seattle is rapidly responding to changes in how people are using streets.” The question becomes whether drivers in Seattle will rebel against the street closures once things return to normal — if they ever do. The automobile has been the central focus of urban life ever since Robert Moses transformed New York into a city on wheels. It may take more than a virus to wean Americans off their dependency on cars.
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