Inside the movement to remake America’s city streets
March 21, 2023 Updated Tue., March 21, 2023 at 7:17 p.m.
The San Francisco Bike Coalition holds its annual event inside Golden Gate Park on Jan. 21. (Brian L. Frank/For The Washington Post)
The automobile has been a fixture of urban life for more than a century.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Congested streets turned into pedestrian safe havens.
Now many want to make those changes permanent – but it won’t happen without a fight.
Golden Gate Park is pretty serene, as far as battlefields go.
On a recent, unusually sunny afternoon, the emerald of this city’s green space was alive with people moving about its main thoroughfare. Cyclists buzzed past roller skaters, who shimmied around joggers, who lapped the many pedestrians.
One runner paused to play a roadside piano. A father and son rallied on a ping pong table. Dogs abounded. The one constituency not present: cars.
For some, this fact explained the peace. For others, it signaled defeat.
Despite its bucolic environs, Golden Gate Park has emerged as one of the most high-profile fronts in a heated pandemic-era fight to redefine city streets, one that takes aim at a century-old status quo and challenges the unquestioned dominance of automobiles.
A ribbon of pavement on the park’s main drag hints at the reimagining afoot: Long known as John F. Kennedy Drive, the stretch is now called JFK Promenade, 1.5 miles of auto-free oasis in the state that birthed American car culture. Banning cars in this part of the park became one of the city’s most contentious political disputes last year.
Similar debates have played out in cities across the United States, as people push to parlay pandemic initiatives into permanent change. The coronavirus forced Americans to rethink foundational parts of society, from work to school to housing. Now, with emergency declarations expiring, they’re considering the shifts that should and shouldn’t last.
Over the last year alone, major U.S. cities doubled-down on plans to restrict driving on main streets. Municipalities from Michigan to Washington, D.C., banned right turns at red lights. Voters earmarked billions for public transit projects. Officials unveiled hundreds of miles of new bike lanes. New York City proposed a new tax on motorists, and California relaxed jaywalking restrictions and freed up land once reserved for parking spaces.
Taken together, experts and activists say, these developments amount to a watershed moment in the debate over who has the right to huge swaths of public space.
“They are extraordinary and historic because they defy the status quo assumptions that have been predominating for the last 100 years,” said Peter Norton, a historian and the author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.” “It illustrates that the car-first mentality does not automatically win every time.”
But a reliance on cars for work and life is ingrained in the DNA of most American environments, and there has been vigorous pushback. Newly proposed bike lanes have become politically explosive and cities have struggled to formalize once-popular streeteries. Business owners worry that fewer parking spaces means fewer customers. Some warn of gentrification, others of gridlock.
With traffic returning to pre-virus levels – and bringing with it an alarming rise in pedestrian deaths – the future of America’s streets still hangs in the balance.
In San Francisco, the no-car contingent dominated at the polls in November, heralding JFK Promenade’s perpetuity in the post-pandemic era. But the battle over who has the right to the city’s streets is far from settled.
Dede Wilsey, a socialite and philanthropist, helped bankroll the campaign to bring cars back to JFK and is frustrated the closure has made it harder to reach the park’s renowned museums, especially the de Young, an institution she helped build with a massive fundraising effort.
“This isn’t over,” she said, “not by a long shot.”
‘A radical revision’
There have been skirmishes over cars in Golden Gate Park for nearly as long as there have been cars. The park, opened in 1870, was designed for visitors on foot or horseback, and park leaders fought hard to keep early automobiles out.
In 1907, a fed-up commissioner proposed arming special policemen with shotguns to “shoot the tires of automobiles” that sped through the park, according to a San Francisco Chronicle account.
Similar conflicts were unfolding across the country. At a time when the fastest vehicle on most roads was galloping, cars were intruders.
Newspapers reported on the new machines as if they were a scourge, blaming drivers for increasing traffic deaths and comparing their cars to the Grim Reaper. Courts held drivers responsible for collisions, ruling in case after case that pedestrians had the right to cross the street where they pleased and had no legal obligation to look left or right, Norton said.
By the 1920s, the bad press was piling up and the auto industry was facing an existential threat. Cities were considering severe restrictions on cars, including installing devices that would limit vehicle speeds to 25 mph. The Engineering News-Record, an industry trade publication, called for “a radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for.”
Auto interest groups mobilized an elaborate publicity campaign, Norton said, and “organized to redirect the blame for traffic fatalities and injuries away from the driver.”
To shame pedestrians into compliance, they coined a new term, using the contemporary slang for fool: “jaywalker.”
In Los Angeles, the local automobile club and a Studebaker salesman persuaded the city to adopt new traffic laws that limited where pedestrians could walk and gave priority to motorists. This codified the modern jaywalking offense and set an example the country would soon follow. Soon after, then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover convened a committee to craft a model traffic law.
The “radical revision” was in full swing, Norton said, “and it was a remarkably successful effort.”
Safety in the outdoors
Nearly a century later, the coronavirus ground American life to a halt – and offered an opportunity for another radical revision.
Stay-at-home orders and the remote work boom changed the country’s streets suddenly and profoundly, emptying them of cars as traffic plummeted to unprecedented levels. At the same time, biking boomed.
The concept of “slow streets” – limiting traffic or vehicle speed on a roadway – was popular in planning circles before the pandemic, but it went mainstream in 2020, as programs spread across the country.
Local leaders enacted a flurry of changes, turning their communities into living laboratories. Researchers at the University of North Carolina counted more than 200 full or partial street closures during the pandemic’s first two years, from a few blocks in downtown Temecula, Calif., to over 20 miles in Burlington, Vt.
Some cities swapped parking spots for outdoor dining tables and curbside pickup areas. With indoor gatherings deemed dangerous, streets became centers of community when many were desperate for connection.
This period “gave people a taste for how it would be to have streets that are slower and safer,” said Daniel Rodríguez, the director of University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
Oakland was among the first cities to announce major changes, rolling out a plan to close miles of streets to through traffic just a month after its first shelter-in-place order, becoming a national leader in the push to reform city streets.
“The city planner’s job is to try to describe this future state where we’re all safer,” said Warren Logan, a former Oakland policy director who was an architect of the effort. “It’s hard to imagine that future. It is much easier to show people what that looks and feels like by just doing it. What covid did is give a bunch of cities this short and amazing window.”
In Kansas City, Mo., where the temporary program has since expired, high-schoolers played volleyball on barricaded streets. In Queens, a couple was married on one of the borough’s “open streets,” and regular Zumba classes are still held on the closed strip.
The changes were especially widespread in California, but just like in other corners of the country, they quickly became polarizing.
In Oakland, the ambitious plan to transform 74 miles of streets into mostly car-free thoroughfares quickly hit a roadblock. Some communities complained officials were moving too quickly. Residents in poorer neighborhoods said city leaders were foisting the program onto blocks with more pressing concerns.
“Covid was the right moment for the cities and the activists that were thinking about this to take a step forward, and sometimes they tripped,” Rodríguez said.
Oakland leaders acknowledged the program’s shortcomings and scaled back their original plan to just 21 miles of slow streets, opting instead to funnel resources into creating safer access to “essential places,” like grocery stores and virus testing sites.
But as the pandemic wore on, the mixed reception and extra upkeep needed to maintain the closures led to the program’s demise. Last month, however, Oakland announced it was reviving a toned-down version of its slow streets.
“It’s a genie in the bottle situation,” said Logan, who left city government in 2021 and now works at a consulting firm. “You can’t put it back.”
A few miles north, in Berkeley, newly-proposed bike lanes on an idyllic strip of the city’s north side have divided residents and led to a torrent of acerbic fliers, heated meetings and more combat metaphors.
“Are bicycles really more important than small businesses in popular shopping and social districts?” asked a sign posted on several local storefronts along Hopkins Street.
Donna DeDiemar, a 74-year-old Berkeley resident who organized a group of neighbors to oppose the project, said those on both sides of the issue share the same environmental and safety concerns. They just disagree on the solution.
Her coalition argues that replacing parking spaces with bike lanes will make life harder for the area’s many seniors. But the advocates she refers to as “the bike lobby” employ a “take-no-prisoners approach,” DeDiemar said, and are not receptive to those concerns.
Those pushing for more protections for cyclists say the new bike lanes are needed to ensure safety for all users of the busy thoroughfare, and they point to studies that show such infrastructure does not negatively impact businesses.
Berkeley’s leaders have said they want to be “a model bicycle-friendly city” and the council has already approved a new mile-long two-way cycle track down one part of Hopkins, home to a string of beloved small businesses. It is now deciding how much farther it will go.
“We’re Berkeley for God’s sake,” said DeDiemar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. “We’re all liberals and progressives, so to be attacked as if you are the source of the problem is not going down well for people.”
‘We don’t have to live like this’
In San Francisco, where the future of two major streets was on the ballot in November, the car-free constituency won decisively. More than 60 percent of voters approved a measure permanently banning cars from part of JFK Drive, while a similar number rejected a competing initiative that would have allowed cars to return to stretches of Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway, another popular city roadway that was partially closed at the onset of the pandemic.
Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, said San Franciscans’ changing view of streets has been “a silver lining of the pandemic.”
The election should embolden local leaders to “keep going and not take their – I hate to say it – foot off the gas,” Medeiros said, as she walked along JFK Promenade one warm winter day. “This should be a really clear mandate that this is what our city wants.”
But for Wilsey, the philanthropist, the transformed Golden Gate Park is evidence that “the pendulum has just swung way over.”
“The fact is, roads were built for cars, they weren’t built for bicycles,” she said. “I believe bikers or walkers deserve to have a safe place, but what we have now is the exclusion of the cars to the good of the bikers or the walkers. I don’t see why we can’t have a compromise that’s good for everyone.”
Medeiros and other advocates insist the closures are a compromise – vehicles are still permitted on many of the park’s roadways and in an underground parking garage. They also say they share critics’ concerns about equitable park access.
Nonetheless, the activists believe benefits ultimately outweigh inconveniences to drivers and museumgoers. They point to people like Joseph Tartakovsky, who grew up in the neighborhood next to the park and still lives there with his family. Before the pandemic, they weren’t big bikers, but when he spotted Medeiros on JFK Promenade on a recent afternoon, he steered his e-bike over to gush about how the strip had changed his life.
“We’ve shifted all of our transportation within the city to bike,” said Tartakovsky, a lawyer. “And it’s infinitely better for us. We’re outside, no worries about parking, the kids on the back of a bike never say, ‘Are we there yet?’”
He’s met neighbors and seen his block near one of the city’s newly permanent slow streets change for the better. It’s now more kid-friendly and less congested, he said.
“The pandemic was a huge thing,” Tartakovsky said. “It opened people’s eyes to the fact that we don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to have every street devoted to cars.”
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