A Benefit of Covid19: Slow Streets

Author: Sue C. | Category: Environment | Date: 05-29-2020


                      A Benefit of Covid19:  Slow Streets

Most people have noticed the much cleaner air quality in their own neighborhoods and around the world during the recent Covid19 lockdowns.  In fact, studies show that particulate matter (smaller than 2.5 microns)  pollution from vehicle, power plants and industrial emissions have decreased all over the world.  In Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, particulate matter pollution has decreased by 35%.

This is a Covid19-induced lockdown benefit that everyone should applaud since such fine particulate matter—mostly the result of auto exhaust wherever there is car traffic—is known to lodge in lungs and cause not only lung damage, but also cardiovascular events such as strokes and heart attacks (more).  It is estimated that air pollution causes 8.9 million excess deaths per year worldwide, a mortality rate that far exceeds Covid19’s.

However, cleaner air due to lockdowns is a transient benefit, since emissions are bound to pick up after the lockdowns end.  Worse yet, some people predict that auto emissions will increase significantly as many people will be eschewing public transportation.

This is not, however, the end of the story when it comes to the potential health and environmental benefits of this pandemic.

There is at least one long-term benefit that can take hold if we have the will and the persistence to advocate for it.

A number of cities around the world and in the U.S. are experimenting with closing down streets to cars,  In the U.S., cities such as Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Oakland, Redwood City, and San Mateo county have all taken the bold step of reclaiming streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and local businesses.

The reasons why some city officials are experimenting with car-free streets is because they know that if cars continue to drive on busy roads, pedestrians and bicyclists will have a harder time practicing social distancing, and overall, fewer people will walk or cycle.  Also, city officials are beginning to heed the studies  showing that people breathing in polluted air stand a higher chance of being infected with respiratory viruses such as Covid19.

As for the benefit for businesses, especially restaurants, if streets are closed to automobiles, dining can expand onto streets, and everyone knows by now that being outdoors diminishes transmission chances considerably. 

In addition to restaurants, other businesses will benefit from car-free streets, as studies have shown that when people walk, they frequent stores at a much higher rate, and tend to visit more shops than when they drive.

There are also powerful community-building benefits:  Jonathan Berk, an advocate of the “new urbanism” envisions an efflorescence of neighborhoods:  Referring to streets without cars, he said, “urban residents [can see] what’s possible when you have this ‘blank canvas’ of street space to utilize for walking, biking, running, playing games with neighbors and just enjoying as a new, public neighborhood open space.” (more)

If this reclamation of streets becomes permanent, we could well see significantly more people cycling to work and to run errands, especially if major roads reduce the number of auto lanes and build barriers between bike and auto lanes. 

For example, El Camino Real--a major north-south road that spans several counties in the San Francisco Bay Area—has the potential to turn into an efficient cycling artery, because people know that on El Camino, cycling is sometimes just as fast or faster than driving short distances, especially during rush hour, when car traffic is extremely congested. 

Recommended Action Item:
We should write to our city council members urging them to seize this opportunity to think seriously about setting aside some streets as car-free slow streets  that support pedestrians, cyclists, businesses and communities.

This would be a major step towards a healthy, life-sustaining carbon-free world. 

The steps are easy:   
1. Find the emails of your city council members, city manager, planning commission—this is all public information available on the internet   
2. Compose your letter yourself, or use the template below  
3. Send email and/or hard copies to ALL council members.

Below is a letter written to municipal officials members by Gita Dev, a Bay Area Sierra Club member,  Feel free to use it as template:

City Council Members, City Managers, Planning Commissioners, Complete Street Commissioners, Sustainability Commissioners, City Planners, City Transportation Managers, City Sustainability Staff

Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, Gita Dev, Chair of Sustainable Land Use

Transforming Your Streets for Walkability in a post-COVID World

In response to COVID-19, cities all around the world are experimenting with ways to make streets more usable for walking and bicycling, to increase access to active recreation while physical distancing.  

These local cities have already implemented such plans:
        • San Francisco
        • Oakland
        • Palo Alto
        • Redwood City
        • San Mateo (in planning stage)

We, the local Sierra Club chapter, applaud these actions and invite other cities considering such a move to contact our Sustainable Land Use Committee for help taking similar action.

Street right-of-ways make up 30-40% of our public realm, the largest single part of our public realm.

We are currently working with city officials in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and are ready to help you with resources and assistance for your city.  

Our Process
In consultation with your city’s Transportation Manager, Complete Street Commissioners or Public Works, we can assist in developing a plan that includes:

        • A tentative map of streets your Council can consider for temporary closure
        • Affordable, temporary street alterations to increase walkability
        • Longer-term infrastructure options to make the changes permanent  

Along with its many challenges, COVID-19 provides cities with an excellent opportunity to make temporary alterations to street networks and test their long-term viability.  Some changes may eventually lead to permanent changes, if done right.

Attached is a short presentation outlining our approach to developing Green Streets, which makes any street more inviting.  We have used the City of San Mateo in the attached example.  This template can be embedded into long-term policy that can meet multiple, critical, long-term climate action plan goals.  

Benefits of Green Streets include:
        • Improved health from clean air and active lifestyle
        • GHG reduction with a future, connected network of walking and biking arterials
        • Clean and reduced storm water to the creeks and Bay using green storm infrastructure
        • Cleaner air and carbon sequestration by growing the urban canopy along these arterials
        • Reduced energy use in nearby buildings from shading and cooling
        • Healthy ecology for pollinators, birds, bees and other ecologically beneficial life

Please contact me to get started.

Gita Dev, Co-Chair, Sustainable Land Use, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter


About: Sue C.

Hi All: Like most people in the Bay Area, I'm sheltering at home. I'm trying to use this opportunity to catch up on projects that are on my back burner and trying not to feel too anxious about the worst case scenarios that are circulating.



Tina Zeng
Humans are creatures of habit. Because of COVID-19, many of us have started to form habits of walking rather than driving. Now, more than ever, we must harness the more environmentally friendly habits we're developing and use them to do good for the environment. If this opportunity is not ...Read more seized, emissions will inevitably grow even higher than before as people choose cars over public transit. Less
Sue C. June 3, 2020 7:34 am
I absolutely agree! That's why this action item is something that we should send to others. Everyone can use it as a template to send an email to his or her city council members.
Gladwyn d'Souza
Good blog. Yes, please write your council. We are constantly told that the market determines behavior, that people consciously choose to drive for hours producing toxic congestion. But we see that given an alternative people choose other modes of getting around. And not getting around like ...Read more telecommuting! We've known this from watching mobility in Europe and Asia but somehow the US was special. Until Covid 19 reveled the emperor had no clothes. In all those cities you mention people are choosing other ways of getting around and traffic remains constrained. Policy makers should implement Safe Streets because it's the safest way to travel until there is a vaccine. And it could make the difference for some businesses by improving their Covid19 margins Less

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