‘Slow Streets’ Disrupted City Planning. What Comes Next?

‘Slow Streets’ Disrupted City Planning. What Comes Next?

January 6, 2021

When she first heard that “slow streets” might be coming to Durham, North Carolina, alarm bells went off for Aidil Ortiz. It was late May, and by that point, dozens of other world cities had restricted vehicle access to miles of residential streets. With Covid-19 placing a premium on safe outdoor space, the goal was to encourage socially distant walking, biking and play. 

But Ortiz was familiar with how good intentions by city planners can miss the mark. As a program manager at the Durham social justice nonprofit SpiritHouse who also sits on the city’s pedestrian and bicycling commission, she’d seen how Durham officials failed to engage communities of color during the planning for theDurham Belt Line Trail, a project to turn an abandoned rail bed into a multi-use trail, in 2018. Concerned that theHigh Line-esque park could trigger gentrification and displacement, she helped press the city to adopt formal standards for gathering feedback from under-represented groups before transforming the infrastructure that outlined their lives.

Now, as the pandemic was surging, the city was contemplating a significant change set to affect some of the same communities, where Covid case rates were taking off and whose residents had complained for years about dangerous speeding. 

“Sometimes people in marginalized communities are very caught off guard by what is seen as priority,” said Ortiz. ”I knew if slow streets were implemented without dialogue and consent and co-ownership, people would resent how it unfolded, and it’d become another example of how some people matter and others don’t.”

Therein lies the moral of an urban design story that defined 2020. Several cities around the world took advantage of traffic lulls during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic to launch temporary car-free or traffic-restricted streets programs; some, like Paris’s celebrated “corona cycleways,” have become permanent. The embrace of non-motorized mobility has been widely cheered by safety advocates, environmentalists and foes of auto-centric planning. But in the U.S., slow streets initiatives have also drawn controversy, community resistance and comparisons with racist urban planning practices of earlier decades. They hit a sore spot in a uniquely sensitive moment: As a pandemic claimed Black and Brown lives at disproportionate rates, and outrage over police killings ignited global protests, slow streets became a flashpoint in the planning sphere’s broader reckoning over systemic racism.

As a result, ten months into the pandemic, some planners are rethinking their playbooks, and even the concept of what it means to do their job.

“I think there’s a tension between planners wanting to act fast, because their work is so critical to reduce fatalities and greenhouse gas emissions — the reasons for this work are so compelling and historic,” said Corinne Kisner, the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “But the urgency to move fast is in conflict with the speed of trust, and the pace that actually allows for input from everyone who’s affected by these decisions.”

The mixed message of street closures

Nowhere was that tension truer than in Oakland, California, which was one of the earliest adopters of the slow streets concept. In April, the city announced a plan to restrict car traffic on 74 miles of residential corridors, much of it all at once. The project attracted coverage in the New York Times, the Guardian, Washington Post and other national news outlets. Lauded for its speedy implementation and streets-for-the-people messaging, it became an international model looked to by other cities as they searched for rapid transportation-based pandemic response. “This is an opportunity to remember that these are our streets, not just streets for cars,” Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy and interagency relations in the Oakland mayor’s office, told Bloomberg CityLab shortly after the launch of Oakland Slow Streets.

But not all Oaklanders shared this enthusiasm. A few weeks into the project, a survey revealed that, while affluent, white and non-disabled residents were overwhelmingly proponents of the program, people of color, people with lower incomes, and people with disabilities reported much lower levels of awareness, use and support. Local nonprofits criticized the city for its lack of community outreach and for not focusing instead on more urgent pandemic-related issues. Some felt that the street closures themselves sent a mixed message.

“The signs didn’t really indicate the parameters of the program or its purpose: closed to whom? Closed for what?” said John Jones III, the director of community and political engagement at Just Cities, a social justice nonprofit. He lives on a block that has been partly closed to vehicles, and says he hasn’t seen more than a handful of people jogging or biking on it since April. “It was confusing even to people who lived on these streets. And it conflicted with the idea that we’re supposed to stay in the house. Whyclose a park but allow people to exercise in the street?”

The rapid implementation of Slow Streets also appeared to ignore the long legacy of distrust towards the city felt by many Oaklanders of color. The city had neglected to talk to residents along the affected streets ahead of time, and follow-up online surveys mostly reached wealthier, whiter people. It initially failed to catch the fact that, on certain corridors, residents didn’t even feel safe crossing a major artery to get to the grocery store, a problem that predated the pandemic — and that Slow Streets did little to solve.

“We’re routinely impacted by decisions that we don’t have the opportunity to weigh in on,” Jones said. “An idea in and of itself can be great, but if it’s absent from how people live and function, that’s where it becomes problematic.”

Some critics connected the stories of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Dijon Kizzee — Black men killed by police or white vigilantes while on foot and bike in public rights-of-way — to why the meaning of “safe streets” for many people of color is different from the one held by government institutions. “Without a plan to include and protect Black, Brown, Indigenous, trans and disabled people, or a plan to address anti-Black vigilantism and police brutality, these open streets are set up to fail,” wrote the anthropologist and planner Destiny Thomas in a CityLab op-ed titled “Slow Streets Aren’t Safe For Black Lives.”

It didn’t take long for Oakland officials to recognize their error. The anger was palpable in long follow-up meetings spent with community groups. According to Logan, a few staffers were tempted to cancel the program entirely, as some activists were demanding. “At this point….. #OaklandSlowStreets need to come to an end,” read atweet in May from the Scraper Bike Team, a nonprofit mainstay known for working with young people to fix and customize bicycles in heavily Black and Latino East Oakland. “It was a great thought, but it’s not sustainable and most neighbors say it’s unnecessary.”

That one hit Logan hard. “If he’s upset about what I thought was a bike-friendly program, then we’re obviously missing something,” he said.

Over the next six months, Logan and his colleagues convened with representatives from Just Cities, East Oakland Collective, Outdoor Afro and other local nonprofits to gather their reactions. Rather than give up on the program, the city revised it. Officials stopped choosing Slow Streets by themselves (a process that had been based on a recent community bike plan) and worked with the groups instead. They created an “Essential Places” program, which set up traffic cones and informational displays on high-crash corridors near grocery stores and pharmacies. To clarify intentions and create an aesthetic that resonated with neighbors, the city also updated the street closure signs: Some now feature silhouettes of two Black girls running and a kid riding a Scraper Bike, a change that was cheeredby the Scraper Bike Team.

Critics give the city credit for persistence. “I’m grateful now that they gave us some feedback opportunities,” said Jones, who added that he also recently received a survey from the city in the mail soliciting reactions to Slow Streets from him and his neighbors. But he’s still frustrated with how the process unfolded from the start, and how little he thinks the city has done to respond to his concerns to date.

“We’re eight, nine months into this,” he said. “These people make these decisions and think it’s great, but if you’d asked some of us who live here before, we could have told you it’s not.”

Taking it slow

Oakland wasn’t the only city to run into conflicts around social and racial equity with their street closure program. Officials in Seattle were told that the closure signs made some residents of historically Black neighborhoods feel excluded and had triggered at least one uncomfortable confrontation, in which a white resident told a Black resident they weren’t using the street correctly. “For some people, this felt like another form of displacement, or part of a continued pressure,” said Sam Zimbabwe, the city’s transportation director.

Elsewhere, in New York City and San Francisco, there was the opposite pushback: complaints that the street closure programs did not immediately extend into low-income neighborhoods. In Baltimore and Washington, D.C., meanwhile, drivers and some residents took aim at the street barricades designed to limit through-traffic, smashing or removing them.

“Sometimes it can feel like you’re damned it you do, damned if you don’t,” Logan said.

Indeed, while some cities took a lashing for equity missteps and oversights, those that hadn’t acted swiftly to shut down streets also faced heavy criticism from bicycle and pedestrian advocates for missing their chance to reclaim auto-dominated streets, as in Chicago. But slow adoption could also be a virtue. After initially deciding against a slow streets program without rigorous community outreach, the city of Atlanta later set up Covid testing sites and census registration tents, programmed by trusted community groups, along key neighborhood corridors.

In Los Angeles, demand for slow streets came early on in the pandemic from wealthy, white neighborhoods, where residents were working from home. But rather than react with a citywide rollout, LADOT general manager Seleta Reynolds took a different tack. Low-income communities of color were “still on transit,” she said on a recent panel. “They were the ones who were actually 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. And they needed different things and were being disproportionately impacted by the virus.”

So the city paid community-based organizations to survey hard-hit neighborhoods about what they wanted, Reynolds said, then used funding earmarked for slow streets to support outdoor dining in those areas. Other neighborhoods that wanted street closures still received them.

Durham also found success by listening and responding. The transportation department applied for and won a $25,000 grant from NACTO to implement a transportation-based pandemic response in partnership with a community-based organization. Their program was dubbed Shared Streets, and in East Durham, it kicked off with three public meetings led by Ortiz. Through those conversations, longstanding concerns about traffic speeds and safety ultimately influenced the design of the program. In the end, five streets received curb extensions and painted traffic circles to slow speeding cars, created with the help of neighborhood volunteers.

“I think taking the extra time did allow us to develop a project that I hope is better serving the needs of communities,” said Dale McKeel, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. He credits the city’s relationship with Ortiz and its existing commitments to equitable engagement.

To Ortiz, the program was essentially a small-scale trust-building exercise between the city and constituents who harbor legitimate suspicions. The fact that the shared streets project was limited in scale and temporary helped, she thinks. “It was reassuring to people that this wasn’t just a one-time thing that we would listen to them just this once,” she said. “We are committed to listening.”

Now, as officials considerextending these programs while grappling with pandemic-battered budgets, the challenge is to keep communication lines open. Reaching out to residents, holding genuine conversations and incorporating feedback requires staff time as well as money.  Building trust with marginalized communities may also require cities to first put their trust in key intermediaries. Tamika Butler and Naomi Iwasaki, transportation consultants who focus on social justice and who advised the NACTO grant program, said that a central lesson from Durham, Atlanta and L.A. is that officials allowed the needs of underserved people to determine solutions on the ground, even if it meant expanding how problems were originally defined.

“Having community partners take the lead — which is often a challenge because of built-in bureaucracies — and being open to hearing stuff that is not always transportation-related is a huge part of it,” Butler said. “Cities need to understand that no one issue lives in isolation.”

Cities ought to redirect existing funds to paying community-based groups like hers so that they can guide more planning processes, Ortiz said. “A lot of people think you need additional resources to do this kind of work, but you really just need to repatriate resources that are already going to other consultants,” she said.

City planning’s “history of trauma” 

Slow Streets was more than a program — it also became a turning point in urbanist discourse. Several equity advocates interviewed for this article said they believed that the planners and officials they work with have developed a deeper understanding of the issues at stake as a result. 

Thomas, who wrote the op-ed that critiqued Oakland’s program, says she’s still disappointed by outcomes in Oakland and other cities that have gone forward with slow streets specifically, but heartened to see that a younger generations of planners is learning to work with communities that go beyond the textbook. She said her op-ed has appeared on multiple university syllabi, and that she is working with professional planning groups to develop certification processes that better include people from different backgrounds.

To help build trust from the ground up, Thomas says, cities should invest in people who understand the communities they serve, and learn from the practices of social workers, counselors and mediators as they develop solutions. “What is still missing is an interdisciplinary, multi-departmental approach: not just asking what we do with streets, but digging into how we make cities and communities healthier,” she said. “If we shift to that focus, then our interventions will start to look a little different.”

Logan agreed that planners might take a page from trauma therapists. In a year that has put police departments in the spotlight for their legacies of brutalizing Black communities, there has also been a quieter reckoning over the fact that those who configure streets, build highways and fund housing can have an equally profound impact on communities of color — often negative.

“City planners think they just do bike lanes,” he said. “But this is the industry that not that long ago rammed a bunch of freeways through neighborhoods and totally disconnected people. We need to reconcile that there is a history of trauma in what we do.”

As Oakland Slow Streets continues to evolve, his new objective is to help neighborhood groups take more leadership overmicro-scale traffic interventions – for example, if one community wants a parklet on their block, while another wants a traffic circle, he wants the city to be able to supply safety tools and support for residents to make it happen on their own. It’s a vision of DIY urbanism that reflects lessons learned from Slow Streets, as well as the austerity required by Oakland’s $62 million budget hole. 

Still, he says he won’t back down from making changes that are critical in corridors where crashes and traffic deaths are high. “You can’t just tell the city to go away,” Logan said. “If we go away, then you still get nothing. Then we’re just recreating the same injustices all over again.”

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