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It was reportedly seen as common sense for the government to adopt Slow Streets as traffic either vanished or drastically dropped as people began quarantine. However, activists are now reportedly saying that these moves were often hastily arranged in more well-to-do white neighborhoods. They’ve also said that this has visibly exposed, if not exacerbated, the inequalities between white and brown communities.
The Slow Streets program was designed to limit through traffic on certain residential streets and allow them to be used as a shared space for people traveling by foot and bicycle.
Speaking on a panel at the CoMotion LA conference on Wednesday dedicated to “rethinking our urban spaces,” the director of equity, diversity, and inclusion at the transportation planning consulting firm, Nelson/Nygaard explained how the open and slow streets programs launched almost overnight in a number of cities and they mostly benefited white neighborhoods where people were working from home.
Also speaking on the panel, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation Seleta Reynolds said: “We were getting tremendous pressure from the wealthy west side of this city, where not driving became a luxury, who had the benefit of working from home, who were looking out their window everyday and thinking, ‘I would like to ride my bike, and teach my kid to ride a bike in the streets.”
The Los Angeles DoT’s approach was to allow some neighborhoods to move forward with plans to initiate slow streets programs, while acknowledging these projects were not appropriate or even desired in other neighborhoods. Moreover, these projects have also been criticized for bypassing the standard community approval process where multiple people and organizations weigh in.
Black and low-income communities “were the ones still on transit. They were the ones who were driving more because as they lost their jobs in retail and service industries, they fell into jobs in the gig economy where driving itself was a job,” Reynolds explained. She added that in said communities biking and walking in the street wasn’t interesting for them because they weren’t working from home.
Reynolds also said this didn’t inspire excitement. What these communities did want, however, was more investment in business-supporting initiatives like outdoor dining, which the city earmarked half of the money it had set aside for COVID-related transportation changes to support it, she noted.
“When you actually empower a community to design their solutions you come up with things that look very different from whatever your pre-pandemic agenda might have been,” she added.
Other city transportation leaders have said slow streets projects were not automatically doled out to the neighborhoods with high numbers of work-from-home residents. Cities like Seattle and Minneapolis followed already established routes identified as ideal for biking or pedestrian activity. In Minneapolis these routes were known as “bicycle boulevards.”
The pandemic has served as a reminder to city officials to ensure that even the best intentioned projects receive a fair vetting across segments and populations in the city.