Today’s urban streets that feature barricades prohibiting thru traffic sport different names depending on target population – slow streets, car-free streets, safe streets, and open streets are the most popular titles. Bikers, joggers, and central planners love these streets. Central planners especially have been dreaming about the extinction of automobiles for decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the brass ring, the golden ticket for car-free-streets implementation in cities throughout the U.S. Sheltered-in-place folks in urban areas needed safe outdoor spaces for fresh air and exercise, and car-free streets stepped in as a solution.
The City of Oakland was the first in California to implement a slow-streets program back in April 2020. The cities of Emeryville, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley, Alameda, and others soon followed.
However now as the pandemic wanes, so does the temporary nature of car-free streets. Local legislation is popping up to make these streets permanent. Cities are rebranding the streets’ existence as good for health, recreation and pedestrian protection regardless of pandemics.
California assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-LA) introduced AB 773 (at present awaiting referral) to facilitate the “closing of a portion of any street to through vehicular traffic if local authorities deem such action necessary for the safety and protection of people using that portion of the street.”
All the enthusiasm for car-free streets comes with a measure of cynicism.
Car-free streets are best suited for yoga moms, cycling dads and others in the higher-income brackets. They fit right in with the lifestyles of work-from-home professionals that like to go out for a stroll between Zoom meetings. They are fantastic for bike messengers and able-bodied non-workers.
Generally, they are impediments for workers that need to drop off their kids in daycare and/or school and be at work by 8:00 am. Closed areas that provide direct access to destinations, such as the Great Highway in San Francisco, represent scarce time spent on meandering. Car-free streets do not serve residents of neighborhoods plagued with crime, where taking a stroll down a street might not be the wise thing to do.
In spite of talk of aiming for racial equity in car-free streets initiatives, neighborhoods with majority black and brown residents often reject them.
Ah, but slow streets help small businesses that often employ those of lower income, no? – picture of happy people sitting outside in a “shared space” on a sunny day enjoying their margaritas. Feels more like advertising than truthful reporting.
But slow streets reduce pollution and traffic fatalities! – no picture of the irate motorist barreling through a slow street barricade, or another just clogging up the parallel street.
San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton made pretty clear what he thinks of slow-street equity. Of the proposed permanent closure of the eastern half of Golden Gate Park’s JFK Drive, Supervisor Walton said like “1950s in the South.” Walton’s supervisorial district contains large populations of lower-income residents that live in less than safe areas, without efficient public transit. Thus car ownership and usage is high compared to the rest of the City. Where do they park if they want to visit the north-eastern part of GGP? No parking along the closed portion of JFK, and the park’s underground garage is expensive.
In the city of Oakland, initial surveys on car-free streets showed the program was popular. Problem was, two thirds of survey respondents were white and 40% had household incomes of $150,000 or more (Oakland’s population is over 70% non-white, and the median household income is $76,000). So, Oakland’s Essential Places program, designed for lower-income neighborhoods, chucked the strolling/biking narrative, strengthened barricades so cars would not plow through them, and rebranded objectives as helping pedestrians move around safely in reaching essential destinations. Maybe lower-income Oaklanders view slow streets as suspiciously as does San Francisco Supervisor Walton?
Government programs are immortal by nature. Like government bureaus, they are also “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Especially so are programs such as car-free streets that help implement agendas like climate change, smart cities, or transit-oriented development. For example, Smart Growth America, advocates for smart cities, contributed to the funding for Oakland’s slow-street initiative.
The elites can comfortably ignore or embrace these agendas. The less affluent cannot. Urban housing developments have contributed to gentrification and increased cost of housing for families. Divestment from petroleum has increased the cost of energy and transportation. Slow streets, coupled with a “transit first” policy that lacks reliable transit, only serve to inconvenience the working poor.
Politicians and the public need to stop the cynicism. Streets are for transit and responsible drivers that need to get where they need to go. Bike lanes, street crossings, sidewalks, playgrounds and parks are the domain of folks not driving at the time.
This article, written by JVN website editor, was first published on California Political News and Views