Again in April, town of Seattle briefly closed off practically 20 miles of streets to most vehicular site visitors with a view to let residents bike, stroll, jog and skate at a protected social distance in the course of the top of town’s COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle’s Keep Wholesome Streets program was designed to encourage folks to journey to important providers and small native companies — or simply to get exterior for train or enjoyable — at a time when many individuals felt anxious about doing so. Whereas wildfires ravaging the West Coast and smoke clouding the air throughout Seattle create yet one more barrier to getting exterior, these hazy skies additionally underscore the significance of defending our air high quality, proper now and for years to come back.
Then, in early Could, one thing surprising occurred: the short-term closure of those streets grew to become everlasting. Mayor Jenny Durkan — one among 25 mayors nationwide taking part within the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Local weather Problem — introduced that this system’s reputation and success had satisfied her to increase it past the top of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. In explaining the rationale for the choice, the top of Seattle’s Division of Transportation described the impression of Keep Wholesome Streets as “transformative,” including that it had revealed a necessity “to proceed to construct out a transportation system that permits folks of all ages and skills to bike and stroll throughout town.”
If governments are critical about listening and responding to the wants of communities of coloration, they’ll make the advance and growth of our transit techniques a high precedence.
Nowadays, as wildfires ravage the West Coast and smoke clouds Seattle’s air, residents face yet one more barrier to getting exterior. These poisonous, hazy skies underscore the significance of defending our air high quality, proper now and for years to come back. And we’re not ranging from scratch: For years, Seattle’s transportation division and others in metropolis management have been working to scale back the health-harming air pollution from vehicles, vans and different sources. Seattle’s Keep Wholesome Streets program is the newest in these efforts: Along with being protected locations to stroll and journey, these streets are freed from polluting vehicles.
Past Seattle and wildfires within the west, the COVID-19 disaster has compelled cities everywhere in the world to rethink — and, in lots of instances, to reimagine — their beforehand held concepts about our transportation techniques. Initially, it has compelled them to acknowledge that bus drivers, subway conductors and different mass-transit personnel are important employees, each bit as essential to the continued functioning of society because the individuals who work at our hospitals, grocery shops, eating places and pharmacies. Certainly, in New York Metropolis, public transportation is how most important employees have been attending to their jobs in the course of the pandemic. And for thousands and thousands of residents who don’t have entry to a automobile, together with a disproportionate variety of low-income folks and folks of coloration, it’s their major technique of getting round, pandemic or no pandemic.
However our present disaster has compelled us to confess one thing else, too: Transportation coverage isn’t nearly getting folks from level A to level B. Quite, it’s inextricably linked to public well being, racial and financial justice, local weather motion and civil society in ways in which haven’t at all times been totally acknowledged, however which might be turning into clearer every single day. One stunning instance? In San Francisco, an expert cellist gave impromptu performances from his doorstep, making a magical expertise for neighbors and folks strolling by — an expertise that was solely audible because of the discount in automobile site visitors.
Seattle’s resolution to show its streets into pedestrian- and bike-friendly zones is only one instance of how cities are recognizing that transportation is about regional accessibility simply as a lot if no more than mobility. In doing so, they’re placing themselves on a path in the direction of a more healthy, extra equitable future. Listed below are 3 ways we are able to reimagine our metropolis transportation techniques.
1. Streets aren’t only for vehicles
Seattle was simply one among many cities around the globe to open up its streets because it (principally) closed down for on a regular basis enterprise. From megacities reminiscent of London, Paris, and New York to Local weather Problem members reminiscent of Austin and San Jose, officers have found the various and compounding advantages that come from redefining thoroughfares to advertise strolling, biking and different emissions-free types of transportation. Including protected locations to stroll and bike to our city landscapes invitations folks out of their vehicles, leading to cleaner air and fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases in our ambiance. But it surely does greater than that: It improves public well being by selling train, and fosters group by beautifying our neighborhoods and making folks excited to get out of the home and be round each other (whereas nonetheless working towards social distancing and mask-wearing, after all!). It additionally addresses inequities inherent in public security: Folks of coloration and members of underserved communities usually tend to develop into victims of car site visitors violence. As well as, “gradual streets” packages in lots of cities are serving to residents rethink what streets are for.
2. Our public transit infrastructure wants — and deserves — funding
For many years, America’s public transit techniques have languished within the shadow of a $98 billion backlog in deferred upkeep and substitute. These are the exact same public transit techniques that stored a few of our greatest cities from collapsing solely in the course of the top of the COVID-19 disaster by transporting important employees to their jobs and permitting folks with out entry to a automobile to go to their docs, purchase meals and acquire medication. Whereas we’re lauding efforts by cities to get extra folks shifting round on foot or bicycles, we additionally needs to be pressuring native, state and nationwide leaders to fill this backlog and replace our mass transit infrastructure.
And we have to be clear that “updating,” on this occasion, doesn’t merely imply changing the — putting in new tracks or shopping for new buses. Public officers should make investments that prioritize the wants of riders most affected by this disaster by reimagining public security and selling public well being, reasonably priced housing and financial alternative in traditionally marginalized communities. COVID and post-COVID restoration plans must make this a precedence, and the congressional champions of infrastructure payments such because the INVEST in America Act and the Transferring Ahead Act must struggle onerous for sufficient funding and a holistic, equitable strategy to spending. Which brings us to:
three. Entry to protected, efficient transit may be very a lot a racial justice challenge
Current incidents of police brutality in opposition to folks of coloration, and the mass protests which have occurred of their wake, have led to a long-overdue nationwide dialogue of how systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy proceed to permeate our public coverage. For a lot of Black and brown residents, transportation already means public transportation: the buses; subways; and light-rail strains on which they rely every day for attending to work, college or important providers. Once we neglect these techniques, we’re neglecting these communities and in our widespread humanity, neglecting ourselves. Any efforts to treatment and redress the inequities borne of institutional racism are incomplete in the event that they don’t acknowledge that mobility is a proper, and that hampering folks’s mobility — be it direct by means of poor planning, gentrification, redlining or underfunding or oblique by means of an act of omission — is an unacceptable violation of that proper. If governments are critical about listening and responding to the wants of communities of coloration, they’ll make the advance and growth of our transit techniques a high precedence.
We’re residing by means of a number of pivotal moments in American historical past directly. In responding to the simultaneous crises we presently face, we now have a accountability to not simply return to the established order, however to boldly and deliberately enhance public well being, racial fairness and local weather resiliency. Reimagining our transportation techniques is the crucial first step to shaping a extra simply future.