Crisis stirs officials, activists to discuss ‘safe streets’ hopes

Bostonians could soon see widened sidewalks and other traffic-calming changes in various neighborhoods with municipal officials and local legislators having serious discussions about how to implement a “safe streets” approach as businesses begin to reopen across the city.
Washington Street in Codman Square has already been identified as a suitable site for an early pilot program.

Possibilities for new installations were laid out last week (May 11) at a remote hearing held by At-large City Councillor Michelle Wu and District 9 Councillor Liz Breadon, who led their colleagues, city planners, Boston Transportation Department (BTD) staff, and community advocates in considering a number of options.

Jacob Wessel, director of the city’s Public Realm office, which has as its focus the “implementation of people-oriented interventions on streets and sidewalks,” outlined four strategies that the city is contemplating that would reallocate street space to expand sidewalks, eliminate push “beg-buttons” for pedestrian crossing signals, and ensure adequate frequency of public transit so riders can physical distance on buses and trains. 

Possibilties include “open curbs” in small business districts and downtown, which Wessel explained as “expanding what is typically a parking lane so that there’s extra space for people looking to enter businesses.” He identified Washington Street in Codman Square, Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, and Meridian Street in East Boston as potential program pilots.

The shared/slow streets model, which would develop routes for residents to use while socially distancing, could include simple barriers and traffic control signage in areas like some streets in Roxbury, north of Franklin Park. 

“This type of approach is something that could be done in a lot of different neighborhoods, but it won’t allow for the same transportation access that cities with a grid system would have,” said Wessel.  

A third option, he said, is pop-up bike lanes that would serve as core transportation avenues in areas that already have substantial bike corridors, like Commonwealth Ave., Malcolm X Blvd., and Columbus Ave. in the South End. 

“These provide key connections to job centers but also hospitals where many essential workers are travelling to today,” Wessel said. 

A final option would see expanded bus stops and lanes for key routes, which would increase space for people waiting at bus stops by utilizing travel and parking lanes and bus priority to accommodate additional service. This model could be suitable for the Silver Line bus lane on Washington and Essex streets downtown, he said. 

Added Vincent Gupta, the BTD’s director of planning: “First we have to think about the context of what the city is doing. We want to focus on public health, environmental benefits, and economic vitality and [ensure] that projects we do today line up with our future goals.”

Noting the obvious – that the city’s small businesses have taken a tremendous economic hit – Gupta said that the BYDF would the assess how certain changes could work for them. He added that residents need more space to walk and exercise, and that seniors need safer walking spaces.

“As we move forward, he said, “we’ve adopted a few approaches relative to how we are going to repurpose space that is available or currently underutilized.” 

In a press conference last week, Mayor Martin Walsh spoke about the importance of making sure the city takes measures to provide residents enough space for social distancing.

“As we prepare for a phased reopening, we want to make sure that we have enough space for safe distancing,” he said. “We want to make sure our small businesses can get the support they need, and we want to make sure everyone has safe and healthy transportation options.”

The mayor took to Twitter with his thoughts on the day of the council hearing, saying, among other things: “Expanding sidewalks in business districts could help with physical distancing, especially where people wait in line for businesses that are following new capacity guidelines.” 

Jeff Speck, a city planner and principal at the urban design and consultancy firm Speck & Associates, provided some context on best practices for rolling out similar “safe streets” programs to enable social distancing across the country.

“A number of mayors around the world are talking about what we want our cities to look like when this is over. This is a conversation we need to have,” he said. “What we face at present is a physical and mental health crisis that is at its heart a spatial crisis. Put simply, the way that space has been allocated in our communities is increasing the spread of the disease.”