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Our streets: a great public asset

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered just about every public institution throughout the United States. In North Carolina, businesses, schools, parks, and events remain closed as the public responds to the need for social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus. Social distancing is working and should continue, but we should not confuse social "distancing" with social "isolation." They aren’t the same. There is a real need for people to get outside, enjoy the spring air, and relax or exercise. The Center for Disease Control also recommends physical activity as a way to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

There is a real opportunity before us in the public right of way. Let’s transition our streets to provide space for people to bike and walk at safe social distances. In the fall of 2018, the Street Tweaks Team, a partnership between AARP, Asheville on Bikes, and Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, launched their first quick build project to redesign Coxe Avenue in downtown Asheville, NC, This project demonstrated how the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists can be improved by providing them more of the public right of way.

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Photo by Istock

Street tweaks made people feel safer
The corridor study reported impressive results:· 32.7% of pedestrians reported feeling “much safer” on the corridor following the redesign.· Average vehicular speeds were reduced by nearly 30% with no impact on vehicular throughput.· 37.9% of motorist reported “no impact” while 23% of motorists reported “brief delays” regarding their drive time on the corridor. The Coxe Ave project demonstrates that the public right of way can transition quickly to accommodate the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists with little impact to motorists. A past success leaves clues for future innovations. If public utilities are underutilized explore ways to maximize them.

Vehicle Traffic is Down
During the pandemic political leaders, health departments, and transportation departments should consider addressing the public need for exercise and relaxation by establishing quick build pedestrian and bicyclists networks throughout our community in the public right of way. Consider that vehicular miles traveled (VMT) is down 70% in Buncombe County since the outbreak as reported by Street Light Data and that the current conditions make it impossible to follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing in any place where two pedestrians cannot pass on a sidewalk and remain 6 feet apart from each other. Our roads are currently an underutilized public asset that could provide citizens a healthy outdoors reprieve that adheres to social distance requirements with marginal design tweaks. Let’s explore this option. Our world is changing and we must change with it. Let’s maximize the public right of way to serve the public good.

Hear more about this project when Mike Sule leads off the "Livable at Lunch" series -- virtual lessons for NC community leaders and planners in how our cities, towns and rural areas are working to make age-friendly improvements. Listen to the presentation at noon, on Monday, May 18.

Get inspired to make changes in your community to make it greater place for all ages. Learn about street-level changes that make it safer for cycling.

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