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Getting There: Pandemic emission reduction offered nonmotorized opportunities that many cities, including Spokane, missed

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 24, 2021

Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs, center, leads the last group of riders westbound on Spokane Falls Boulevard in the University District in this September 2019 photo. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell 10% in 2020, according to a new report, and the city of Spokane might have squandered an opportunity to promote nonmotorized transportation during the pandemic.  (DAN PELLE)
Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs, center, leads the last group of riders westbound on Spokane Falls Boulevard in the University District in this September 2019 photo. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell 10% in 2020, according to a new report, and the city of Spokane might have squandered an opportunity to promote nonmotorized transportation during the pandemic. (DAN PELLE)
By Nicholas Deshais For The Spokesman-Review

A year ago, cities faced a choice and they didn’t even know it.

The coming coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout would soon upend every facet of life, reordering family life, work responsibilities and politics. We realized we didn’t really know how to properly wash our hands, or how stressful it would be to not leave the house.

It even changed the climate – or, at least, our effect on it.

In 2020, America’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by more than 10%, according to a report released last week by the Rhodium Group. That’s the biggest decline seen since World War II, and it brought emissions to their lowest levels in three decades.

Why did they drop so significantly? Because we quit driving.

Transportation is the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases, and accounts for 31% of net U.S. emissions. Thanks to Americans driving 15% fewer miles, and jet fuel use falling by a third, transportation emissions decreased by 15% in 2020.

In the first lockdown month of April alone, the amount of miles driven plummeted by 40%.

Before we cheer and pat ourselves on the back for such environmental stewardship, let’s remember that the drop was coupled with human suffering and severe economic damage. But let’s also remember that we squandered this opportunity. That’s where cities come in.

The emissions will quickly jump back to their pre-pandemic levels, the climate report says. We’ll get right back in our cars and go right back to doing whatever we did before this past harrowing year. For motorists, that means generally driving everywhere they need to go, no matter how distant, with nobody else in their highly sophisticated, 4,000-pound, gas-burning vehicle.

It didn’t have to be this way. New patterns of mobility could’ve been encouraged by city leaders with new infrastructure or appeals to health, for both body and planet.

In some American cities, that did happen. They shifted their policies to reclaim parts of the street. Parking spaces were cleared for outdoor dining. Entire streets were closed to vehicles to allow for outdoor retail. Such “al fresco streets” popped up around the country.

Tampa, Florida, has allowed restaurants to take parking spaces for tables on busy roads across the city. Hinsdale, Illinois, blocked cars from using a main street in its downtown for the same reason. St. Louis created a free permit program allowing restaurants to take parking space and entire parking lots. The entire state of Connecticut did away with minimum parking requirements to ease the coronavirus crunch, a move that was called a “previously impossible regulatory reform” by Planetizen.

Even Pullman, home of the Cougs, briefly took space from cars in the midst of the pandemic, but quickly pulled back from this forward-looking plan.

But let’s be honest. The clearest illustration of how Americans used their cars during the harrowing year of 2020 was President-elect Joe Biden’s election night rally, where cheers were replaced by beeping horns. Only in America can cheering throngs be effectively swapped out for idling cars and their honks.

A similar scene played out in Spokane during the holidays. The city organized the Enchanted Garden Drive-Thru Holiday Lights at Manito Park, creating previously unheard-of traffic jams on the South Hill. At times, Grand Boulevard would be filled with cars not moving as far north as the Park Inn. What’s worse, pedestrians were told to leave the light display because it was too dangerous to linger, with all those slow-moving cars and distracted drivers.

But what’s done is done. It’s just another example of Spokane being unprepared when opportunity knocks. Much like a decade ago when, if voters had allowed planners to draw up preliminary plans for a light rail connecting the airport to Coeur d’Alene, the Obama-era stimulus may have funded it.

In 2020’s case, if Spokane leaders had drawn up a serious bike plan, it might’ve become reality.

In this way, look to Paris, where the city used streets quieted by COVID to install miles of traffic barriers, creating city-crossing “corona cycleways” that soon teemed with newfound bicycle commuters.

“This is the first time I’ve ever cycled to my office, but I don’t want to risk using public transportation,” Christophe Tafforeau, 52, a commercial director at a job training agency, told The New York Times about his 20-minute commute to his job near the Bastille. “I’m learning to make the bike my main means of getting around.”

The new cycleways, which are bike paths separated from traffic by a barrier or more, are a huge change for Paris, which has a reputation for being one of Europe’s least bike-friendly cities. In fact, the city’s few bike lanes have been called “les couloirs de la mort,” or “corridors of death.” Much like Spokane, Parisians weren’t known for cycling. Bicycle trips in 2010 accounted for less than 3% of trips taken in Paris. In Spokane, that number hovers around 1%.

That’s all changed thanks to Anne Hidalgo, who became Paris’ mayor in 2014 and helped to pass the city’s five-year “Plan Velo.” Hidalgo’s policy aims for a “15-minute city,” where all residents can have all their needs by cycling or walking met within 15 minutes of home.

In perhaps the biggest change under Hidalgo’s plan, cars were completely banned from a busy road that ran alongside the Seine River. This Parisian example could’ve played out in the Lilac City, like it did in London and Bogota and Brussels.

Such change is not out of the question. Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs is an occasional bike commuter. And Mayor Nadine Woodward said before taking office she’d like to see a light rail run between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, suggesting she has ideas about transportation that don’t rest solely on the car.

At the very least, the quiet streets during the pandemic could’ve led to the completion of Riverside Avenue and the city’s first protected bike lane. Instead, the plan has been watered down and will only have a temporary, movable infrastructure, a change that happened on Woodward’s watch and by request of the powerful building owners along the street.

There’s still hope that Spokane, and other cities, may begin to shift away from car-centered street building.

On Wednesday, Biden, he of the honking rally, will become president. His choice to lead the transportation department is Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of a town about half the size of Spokane but in a region of comparable size. When he led South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg implemented policy to reduce car dependency. He won a Smart Streets award from the department he’s about to lead for his work “transforming South Bend’s streets to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers.”

At the award event, Buttigieg noted that when he was a kid, “you could shoot a cannonball downtown and (it) wouldn’t hit anyone.”

“The four-lane highway cutting through the middle of downtown was meant to evacuate,” Buttigieg said to the crowd. “I want to populate.”

An almost exact sentiment was shared by Brent Toderian, a Canadian urban thinker who visited Spokane in 2018 to give his “constructive candor” to the city.

“I can shoot a cannon down any of these one-way streets,” he told policymakers at City Hall in July 2018. “Your traffic problem is you’ve got too wide of roads.”

Work to watch for

The south curb lane of Palouse Highway east of Regal Street, as well as several lanes on Regal Street, will be closed through Friday for telecommunications work.

The southbound curb lane of Monroe Street between Mallon Avenue and Boone Street, and the eastbound curb lane of Boone between Monroe and Lincoln Street, will be closed through Jan. 26 for CenturyLink work.

The eastbound lane of Euclid Avenue between Altamont and Smith streets will be closed until Jan. 29 for Avista work.

Wall Street between First and Second avenues will be completely closed until Feb. 11 for Avista work.

The northbound curb lane of Grand Boulevard between Cliff Drive and Rockwood Boulevard will be closed until Feb. 18 for telecommunications work.

The eastbound curb lane of Euclid Avenue between Nelson and Haven streets will be closed until the end of February for Sefnco work.

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