Making Streets Slow and Green in the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic “locked in” many places across the country in late March when a variety of local and state governments issued stay-at-home orders – many of which still remain in place to help quell the spread of the virus.

[Photo courtesy of New Jersey state government.]

Many local and state governments recognized outdoor recreational activities such as walking, bicycling, and running as “essential activities” if conducted in compliance with social distancing requirements. However, many people found they did not have safe access to areas to participate in those activities – especially as parks completely closed to the public in many areas.

As a result, state and local governments are witnessing an opportunity to increase the availability of safe active transportation space in their urban areas. Some of the measures include:

  • Closing certain streets to motorized vehicles. In Oakland, the city closed nearly 10% of its streets.
  • Expanding or creating new priority zones for cyclists and pedestrians, creating “shared spaces.”
  • Creating temporary or “pop-up” bike and pedestrian lanes through low-cost interventions (signage, traffic cones, and concrete barriers).
  • Providing equipment and finance e.g. bike commuter benefits, shower facilities at workplaces, grants to local governments that want to implement slow street initiatives.

More than 200 cities around the world have taken some sort of action to expand pedestrian and bicycle access during the pandemic, according to data collected by researcher Tabitha Combs at the University of North Carolina’s Department of City and Regional Planning. Her research data set is part of a larger project collecting responses globally and includes the Walk/Bike/Social Distancing dataset, COVID19 Livable Streets Response Strategies, and COVID Mobility Works

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte DOT

The Oakland Slow Streets Program is one example of these types of actions. The City of Oakland Slow Streets Program supports “safe physical activity” by creating more space for physical distancing for all city residents by declaring several local roads as “slow streets.”

“Slow streets” are closed to through traffic so that people can more comfortably use low-traffic areas for physically-distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking all across the city. To that end, the Slow Streets: Essential Places program in Oakland extends on the original program and provides intersection improvements to support residents’ safe access to essential services such as grocery stores, food distribution sites and COVID-19 test sites.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is also making strides in implementing a similar idea via a Shared Streets and Spaces grant program. 

The agency partnered with the Barr Foundation to provide technical assistance and support to cities and towns interested in rapidly transforming their streets to facilitate responsible public health practices. The program resulting from that program includes providing funding for more outdoor seating and recreation space for businesses, as well as safe spaces and streets blocked off for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. As of early August, the program has given out a total of $3.8 million to fund projects in 48 municipalities across Massachusetts.

Alongside of state and local “slow street” encouragement programs are efforts to expand “green street” initiatives as well – largely in terms of altering street designs to better manage storm water runoff.

In the past, storm water often flowed over the urban surface areas, collecting pollutants and other trash, until discharged untreated into creeks, rivers, lakes, and eventually oceans. Today, storm water regulations require better management of such pollutants – and one such solution involves the construction of “greener” transportation infrastructure. 

For example, design methods for green streets or living streets incorporate natural components such as grassy swales, detention basins, and tree wells to manage pollutants from street runoff – methods that promote storm water capture, water conservation, and improved groundwater supplies through infiltration. Green streets also include more trees and shade, which helps improve air quality and reduce urban temperatures.

More state and local governments are recognizing the importance of green infrastructure thinking and are developing tools for transportation planners and designers. 

For example, the San Diego County Green Streets technical guidance document – developed by a contract with consulting firm WSP USA in 2018 – provides directives on green designs for new streets as well as outlines for taking into account when retrofitting existing paved roads to be “greener” and manage storm water runoff better. 

Many other states and organizations are seeing the positive impacts of including green and living streets in their planning processes and are developing guidelines for their transportation planners.

The District Department of Transportation, for one, established a long-range plan in 2013 to make Washington, D.C., the “greenest city in the nation.” The plan calls for increasing green infrastructure in the public right-of-way and taking actions to improve the health of the city’s waterways.

“DDOT is installing Green Infrastructure or GI as part of construction projects and in retrofit projects to reduce storm water runoff in more areas of the city,” the agency noted. “Green Street and Green Alley projects utilize GI techniques and may be constructed where watershed and infrastructure improvements are prioritized.”

The New Jersey Department of Transportation adopted a similar long-range plan in July 2019 as a “one-stop resource” for New Jersey municipalities, counties, agencies, and organizations pursuing green street strategies.

According to the agency, “green street” design elements complement efforts to create more active transportation-friendly environments by:

  • Creating an inviting and comfortable walking and bicycling environment by incorporating green infrastructure elements – such as street trees and rain gardens – that provide shade and remove pollutants from the air.
  • Minimizing flooding along streets and sidewalks that interferes with and discourages walking and bicycling.
  • Achieving efficiencies and cost savings when improvements are designed and constructed concurrently.
  • Aiding in pedestrian safety by using green infrastructure installations to slow down traffic.

ETAP Podcast: Arizona DOT’s Steve Olmsted Discusses the Impact of COVID-19

One impact from COVID-19 pandemic being felt by state departments of transportation is the temporary cessation of “traditional” face-to-face public meetings to discuss upcoming transportation projects – with most of such gatherings going virtual.

In this podcast, Steve Olmsted – senior program manager at the Arizona Department of Transportation – discusses how his agency is handling the challenge of engaging the public and moving forward transportation projects during a time of social distancing.

“We call them virtual call-in public hearings,” he said on the podcast. “The meeting was presented by phone only and callers could verbally submit comments … with a court reporter transcribing the comments. The meeting was also simultaneously broadcast on free public radio stations – that is a novel thing for us and credit goes to our community relations team for that.”

To hear more about the “lessons learned” by the Arizona DOT from this process, click here.

House Climate Report Recommends Transit Expansion, Further VMT Study

The House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis unveiled a broad 547-page plan on June 30 that includes among its recommendations that Congress fund a “massive expansion of public transit” and “further examine” switching to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or similarly styled fee in lieu of motor fuel taxes.

“One area that the majority staff for the Select Committee did not tackle but remains important for Congress to discuss is the issue of the viability and equity of current revenue streams for highway and transit, including the gasoline tax,” the report noted. “Congress should continue to explore and test options for alternatives that fund U.S. transportation infrastructure priorities while advancing environmental and climate priorities, such as a vehicle miles traveled fee.”

The committee’s plan also suggested “at least” doubling annual funding for new intercity passenger rail and bus rapid transit projects.

“Transit projects that reduce air pollution and improve mobility in environmental justice communities and underserved rural areas should receive additional funds and consideration,” the report said. “Federal support for projects should be conditioned on recipients meeting strong labor standards – including Buy America and Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements – complying with all labor, environmental, and civil rights statutes, and signing community benefit agreements and project labor agreements, where relevant.”

The overarching goals of the committee’s wide-ranging climate plan including reaching “net-zero” carbon dioxide or CO2 emissions before 2050, with interim steps including the reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 37 percent below 2010 levels in 2030 and 88 percent below 2010 levels in 2050.

Every sector of the nation’s economy would be affected by the plan, from the energy industry – where “rapid deployment” of more wind, solar, and other “zero-carbon” power sources would occur – to the construction segment, which, among other mandates, would be required to develop and use more “direct capture” and low-carbon building materials.

The committee’s report describes the transportation sector as the “largest source” of energy-related CO2 emissions in the country – accounting for 37 percent of all emissions in 2019 – and targets it for major changes.

“Congress needs to take a multi-pronged approach to the transportation sector to drive down emissions and increase the sector’s resilience in the face of worsening climate impacts,” the report said. “Improving a vehicle’s efficiency, for example, will not be enough if that vehicle travels farther each year.”

To that end, it recommends enacting a “suite” of new federal transportation policies that could impact state departments of transportation, including:

  • Deploying “demand-pull” and “supply-push” policies that incorporate: a national zero-emission vehicle sales standard; federal procurement requirements; consumer tax incentives to defray upfront vehicle costs; and tax incentives, grants, and other financial tools to help cities, states, and other entities to install electric charging stations and other zero-emission fueling infrastructure.
  • Require states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to include GHG emissions reductions in their long-range public transit and highway planning efforts.
  • Direct states and MPOs to evaluate how well the nation’s transportation system is “facilitating access” to housing, jobs, and critical services. With the counsel of outside experts, it recommends that the U.S. Department of Transportation “develop standards and criteria” for how to measure access, including a consideration for how access might differ for low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Require states to use “complete streets” and “context-sensitive principles” when designing and implementing transportation projects and provide grant funding to support associated infrastructure investment.
  • Increase funding for the Low-No Grant Program “by at least tenfold” and limit grants to zero-emission buses and associated equipment.
  • Increase funding for USDOT programs to support passenger ferry electrification and installation of necessary shore-side charging infrastructure.
  • Create a new formula and grant program managed by the USDOT to protect vulnerable transportation assets in advance of disasters, including investing in evacuation routes and increasing resilience to flooding, wildfire, erosion, and extreme weather.
  • Allow states to use funds apportioned under the National Highway Performance Program for projects to mitigate the risk of recurring damage from extreme weather, flooding, and other natural disasters on transportation infrastructure.

Webinar Series Focuses on Community Outreach Techniques

A webinar series sponsored by Smart Growth America is examining virtual public engagement practices for community outreach, examining a range of online platforms, as well as email and social media, as means of public involvement on projects and programs.

The group is holding three webinars on the subject, the first of which was held on April 28 and is now available via recording. The next two webinars are in June and cover:

“Online engagement might not be the best platform for every community to engage every citizen on every topic,” Smart Growth America noted. “But necessity is often the mother of invention and the need to stay home has exposed inequities and fostered innovations that have started many community leaders thinking about new and better ways to achieve wider and more meaningful representation in public decision-making.” For more information, registration, and recordings, click here.

Report Focuses on Integrating ‘Tribal Expertise’ into Transportation Projects

The Transportation Research Board recently issued a National Cooperative Highway Research Program report that explores how “unique tribal perspectives and expertise” could boost tribal engagement in a variety of surface transportation projects.

Additional resources for this report – entitled NCHRP Web-Only Document 281: Integrating Tribal Expertise into Processes to Identify, Evaluate, and Record Cultural Resources – include a Quick-Reference Guide and a PowerPoint Presentation.

This NCHRP report concluded that – from the tribal perspective — state agencies need to make sure to reach out to tribes to learn what their research questions and interests may be and bring these into the research design for a project, as part of thoughtful, collaborative research.

In addition, state agencies need to be willing to work with tribes and have productive conversations, including the ability to switch easily between scientific jargon and standard language to build understanding.

One tribe interviewed for this research report noted that sometimes there are differences in perspective – something both parties, tribes as well as state agencies, need to overcome.

“It is important to talk through any challenges,” the tribe noted in its response. “The bottom line is that sustained communication leads to effective consultation and in turn to collaboration.”

This NCHRP follows several initiatives at both the federal and state level to improve the integration of tribal needs within the planning process for surface transportation projects.

Photo courtesy Arizona DOT

For example, in October 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation proffered a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that aims to establish a tribal transportation self-governance program – the result of what the agency is calling a “successful three-year negotiated consensus rulemaking process” between representatives of North American Indian tribes, USDOT, and the Department of the Interior.

USDOT added that “among the many benefits” of the proposed self-governance program is streamlining transportation funding distribution to North American Indian tribes – creating a “less onerous” regulatory framework while promoting greater self-sufficiency among tribal governments.

State governments are engaged in similar efforts. In December 2019, the Georgia Department of Transportation signed a new consolatory agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office, and the state’s 20 federally recognized Native American Indian Tribes.

That agreement establishes a framework for approving all types transportation projects throughout the state – from widening highways to the location of new bypasses – while protecting ancestral tribal lands.

Two DOTs Take Differing Approaches to Sustainability

The idea of tackling sustainability from a state department of transportation perspective can evoke as many questions as ideas; what should be done, who should do it, and how can anyone tell if it’s working?

DOTs in at least two states – Arizona and Minnesota – have been addressing sustainability issues for a few years now, but each is taking a different approach to altering traditional transportation activities’ impact on the environment.

“Climate change is happening in Minnesota, and we want to do our part,” explained Tim Sexton, assistant commissioner, and chief sustainability officer of the Minnesota DOT.

A Minnesota state law – The Next Generation Energy Act – put the onus on the MnDOT to lead the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote transit, biking and walking. “There was some work done here prior to 2014, but it was not coordinated between departments,” Sexton said. Though the department lacked specific resources dedicated to the effort, “we started a high-level strategic planning committee on sustainability, and we saw it as an opportunity to be more strategic.”

The committee created an initiative called Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation, began working with experts to create sustainability models and held a series of meetings around Minnesota to get public feedback. Out of that exercise, MnDOT developed incentives of up to $250 in toll credits for new EV buyers and planned a $2 million clean transportation funding pilot program.

MnDOT also created a Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council, an 18-member group of executives from the public, private and non-profit sectors tasked with overseeing and evaluating Minnesota’s sustainability efforts and making recommendations to MnDOT. Its first meeting is scheduled for March 2020.

While Minnesota focused on the user-end of the sustainability spectrum – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting greener transportation modes – Arizona put its efforts into its core functions.

“There are a number of different approaches to sustainability,” said Steven Olmsted, Arizona DOT’s NEPA assignment manager. “If you look at the material from AASHTO, it runs the gamut. We’re still adding a lot of new highways because of our growth so it made sense to look at sustainability from that point of view.”

ADOT began partnering with construction groups and industry and “really tied the effort to design engineering, construction, and maintenance,” Olmsted said. “We’ve also gotten into design guidance and scoping considerations.”

Olmsted said many sustainability efforts can be justified from an economic standpoint, “but it still remains that you must make a qualitative business case.

“At the end of the day, we are not going to spend ten times the cost of a unit just to be sustainable,” he said “We’ve tried to address the social pillar of what sustainability means in a DOT. At the same time, there really has to be a business case.”

In a recent report ADOT filed on its sustainability efforts, Olmsted and his staff noted that integrating such a program inside a DOT is “a particularly complex undertaking” and “a daunting effort.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart; I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” Olmsted said. “But at some point, one person or a group of persons has to decide, ‘What’s the lowest hanging fruit where we can gain some traction?’ That’s how you get started.”

Sexton with MnDOT agreed that “there’s a ton of opportunities for states to take advantage of lowering emissions and saving money,” but he said the issue goes beyond dollars and cents.

“We really view this as a crisis,” Sexton said. “This is a scientific issue and a moral or even an existential issue. We want our kids to enjoy the wonderful things Minnesota has to offer. There’s a culture in Minnesota that is committed to our environment. For us, it’s not a political issue.”