Recently on walks (with my face covered), I’ve encountered moments with enough people on the sidewalks and cars in the street to generate a paralyzing gridlock. Given the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, I immediately have to process: how can I keep six feet apart from others? It’s dangerous to walk on the sidewalk, the median feels too close, and it doesn’t always feel safe to assert a claim to walking in the middle of the street. Meanwhile, numerous places, from Kansas City to New York City, have taken measures to resolve this by closing streets to driving. Here in Ithaca, we have the opportunity to achieve something similar and more holistic.
Now is a good time to revive the concept of street diversions, which Ithaca considered six years ago, and which can make our streets safer for everyone. The core idea, which emerged in Ithaca’s 2014 bicycle boulevard plan, is that not every street needs to be a through-street for driving. The plan aimed to replicate what Portland, Berkeley, Madison, and Minneapolis have achieved, envisioning “low-traffic and/or traffic-calmed routes where [people on bikes or in cars] share the travel lanes and where bicycle travel is generally prioritized.” Instead of protected routes, though, Ithaca used Safe Routes to School funding for asphalt markings and speed limit signs – a good first step, though not quite complete.
Yet with the spine of the bicycle boulevard in place, we can finally pursue the street reroutings in earnest: with the appropriate diversions, we can uncover a new public space hiding in plain sight. The bicycle boulevard plan proposed a few central corridors where it would be uniquely safer to ride light modes (bicycle, scooter, wheelchair, skateboard) and, now, to walk in the middle of the street. People would still be able to drive and park on asphalted streets, but mid-block landscaping and traffic-diverting islands would transform Plain Street and Tioga Street into promenades. These reroutings would not generate unfamiliar experiences; parking lots offer rudimentary working models for the idea of sharing spaces with slow-moving cars.
A proper “bicycle” boulevard with street diversions would convert our tree canopy and landscaped medians into linear parks, as Streets Alive! epitomizes. This would help decongest our waterfront and nature trails as people increasingly seek outdoor activity while practicing social distancing.
The image below illustrates the benefits to a typical block on the route, which would retain on-street parking. Achieving this vision need not be expensive: wooden barriers diverting car traffic will suffice to start. In the long run, more permanent barriers will be desirable. As an example, the intersection of S. Meadow St and Cleveland Ave suggests how future rerouted streets might look.
Social distancing will remain our reality over the next year as we gradually unpause New York toward an eventual reopening. We, therefore, must prioritize light modes of transport in our city now and in the coming months. To be clear, I’m not advocating for more car-free malls like the Commons. Rather, my vision is to leverage the present condition as an opportunity to continue implementing an incomplete vision: a buffered low-speed route with limited car access, and a new urban trail to enrich how we live, survive, and ultimately thrive in our lovely little city.
City of Ithaca