Street smart: How the pandemic could change our streets for the better

Cities across the country have opened up streets to pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic. Here's the case for why they should stay open.

Ethan Evans

A few months ago, I moved to Somerville, Mass. As luck would have it, I was moving right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in full force, and the city of Somerville was in the process of closing down its economy. I was ready to hunker down with my new housemates for the foreseeable future.

We all know what’s happened since then — more than 180,000 deaths and counting, the politicization of masks and extreme disparities between states in testing, contact tracing and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).

My day-to-day life changed, alongside everyone else’s. I wore a mask when I went out, limited the number of times I went to the grocery store, and began working remotely. However, amid all the terrible news, about a month into the pandemic, I noticed an unexpectedly positive change.

I first noticed it, unsurprisingly, on my phone. On Google Maps, I began to see that certain streets, including my own, were no longer white bars, but rather, dashed blue lines. After some research, I learned that the dashed lines meant that the street had been closed to through traffic to protect pedestrians, and to allow for safe social distancing. In part, this change was in response to stories of drivers speeding on otherwise empty streets, and narrow sidewalks forcing pedestrians to break social distancing guidelines. 

I went outside, and sure enough, at the end of my street, signs in the road politely directed traffic elsewhere. I had heard a little bit about the idea of ”open streets,” but I did not expect to see it so close to home. 

It was such a positive change to my life. That early in the pandemic, I was still worried about basic things, such as going outside. Once I learned that the street had been closed down to cars, I was much less hesitant to go for walks. I could stay a safe six feet away from other people on the sidewalk by moving into the road, and get some much-needed fresh air and sunshine.

This pandemic has caused so much harm — physically, mentally and emotionally — to so many people. Sometimes I think just to stay sane, it’s important to highlight the good things that are happening. This little change significantly improved the quality of my life during an otherwise dark period.

Pedestrian- and bike-only streets are not a new idea, nor should they be just a temporary response to a pandemic. Our streets are changing for the better, with restaurants opening up parking spaces for outdoor seating, expanded bike lanes, and of course, roads closed off to through traffic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on our streets — particularly ways we can make them safer and more pleasant for non-drivers. We’ll eventually have a vaccine, and life will slowly go back to normal, but I don’t want our roads to go back to the way they were before. When streets are safe for everyone, we all benefit.


Ethan Evans