Safe, Healthy Transportation is Always Essential

by Colin Fiske

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing all of us to rethink the way we do things and to adopt new strategies and practices in response—some of which will be only temporary, but some of which may become permanent. Changes to the transportation system, in particular, are central to the pandemic response.

As I write this, Humboldt County has been in “lock down” for more than a month. We’ve been told not to leave our homes except for essential purposes, and we don’t know how long this situation will last. These local and statewide stay-at-home orders have, by definition, dramatically affected our local transportation systems. The number of cars on local roads has plummeted. Ridership on local transit systems has declined dramatically and schedules have been reduced. Those who still have to ride on the Redwood Transit System are doing so for free, using only the back door of the bus to avoid contact with the driver and keeping 6 feet away from other passengers. Analysis of cell phone data indicates that overall travel has declined by about half. 

COVID-19 Transporation Response in Seattle, WA. Photo Credit_ National Association of City Transportation Officials @dongho_chang

At the same time, many of our local streets and roads are seeing a dramatic increase in people walking and biking. Around the world, many people have turned to bikes to avoid crowded transit systems, and many more are just walking and biking for exercise and for a bit of relief from the hours and days spent sheltered indoors. This surge of bike and pedestrian activity has brought into stark relief the lack of adequate active transportation infrastructure. Sidewalks and bike lanes are too narrow even to squeeze by another person in many places, let alone maintain a safe 6 feet of distance.

In many communities, local governments and residents have adapted to these new transportation realities with creative solutions to reprioritize street space. Hopefully, by the time you read this, some of our local communities on the North Coast will be among them. Here are a couple of short-term adaptations that CRTP has been advocating locally:

 

  1. Reprogram traffic signals in places like Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville so that people on foot don’t have to touch a button – and risk picking up coronavirus – in order to cross the street. 
  2. Temporarily widen sidewalks and/or create temporary protected bike lanes. Locations with lots of pedestrian traffic, narrow or non-existent sidewalks, and extra car capacity are good candidates for these kinds of treatments. 
  3. Work with residents to close low-volume residential streets to through-traffic and allow free pedestrian use of these streets. This model does not restrict the use of cars by neighborhood residents on the streets, but reduces traffic and lowers speeds, allowing walkers more safety.
  4. Work with law enforcement to conduct public education for drivers about the importance of yielding to pedestrians, including possibly using plain-clothes officers to test yielding at crosswalks and educate drivers who fail to yield.

A long list of communities that have already taken these measures – and many others – in response to the pandemic is available on the website of the National Association of City Transportation Officials at nacto.org. More detailed coverage of local transportation changes in response to the pandemic can be found in past editions of The Collector at transportationpriorities.org/news-updates/.