Del. Robbyn Lewis would like to see Baltimore join other U.S. cities like Oakland, California, Minneapolis and Denver that have closed streets to promote social distancing and outdoor exercise in the midst of this coronavirus outbreak.
Lewis, a Baltimore Democrat who represents Southeast Baltimore’s District 46, is highlighting a growing push nationwide to shut off several miles of roads and lanes to allow city residents to get outside and burn off calories and stress.
“We’ve seized the opportunity to do some fantastic things,” she said. “We’ve used our rec centers for food distribution. We’ve created opportunities for people to assemble personal protection equipment at home and arrange for them to get delivered to the people who need it. This is a city of problem solvers and people who make things. This is something that’s in our power to seize.”
If Lewis is successful, Baltimore would join jurisdictions that have sought to break the confines of urban living by creating more open space for their residents.
On Friday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the closure of 74 miles of city streets to through traffic. Sections of two parkways running along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis were reopened Friday after being shut down for two weeks by the city’s Park and Recreation Board to through traffic. Denver closed three locations.
Within the greater Baltimore-Washington region, Montgomery County extended the usual Sunday closure of Sligo Creek Parkway to Fridays and Saturdays and will open another section of the road to people on weekends. A petition signed by about 700 people requesting some lane closures was sent to District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser.
But Steve Sharkey, director of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, said there are no plans to close streets in the city.
“Reports from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and recent scientific evidence show that the most effective approach to slowing the COVID-19 Virus is through staying home, limiting public activities and engaging in limited social distancing,” he said in a written statement. “The Baltimore City Department of Transportation has prioritized its efforts to provide support to the Health Department and other social service agencies during this crisis — while maintaining minimal normal day to day operations. As of now, the City has not concluded to shut down city streets and continues to examine the issue.”
While residents in suburban and rural districts can exercise relatively freely, their counterparts in cites face more imposing hurdles. Parks and open space are not always available or accessible, and sidewalks tend to be narrower.
All of this seems to contradict many health experts’ recommendation of staying 6 feet apart from others to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Lewis, who lives near Patterson Park, said residents who have braved heavily trafficked roads to get to the park have been “chastised and shamed” for seeking physical activity.
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“But the reality is humans need to be outdoors in the sunshine,” she said. “They need to stretch, they need to move despite the fact that we’re in a self-isolation, stay-at-home mode. The parks aren’t big enough for the demand. So make more space. Close the streets to cars and return them to people.”
A common criticism is that residents should be staying indoors anyway to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic. But with 43 of 50 states maintaining or extending stay-at-home orders, the prolonged period of minimal contact with others has increased the desire of many to get outdoors and improve their health, according to Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“What we’re finding is the pent-up demand to walk and bike that’s probably always been there, but people have probably been too busy,” he said. “They now have more time and want to be able to get out of the confines of the four walls of their home, but they want to do it with the safe physical distance, the 6-foot standoff. And we’re quickly finding that our sidewalks are too narrow, that we’ve dedicated far too much space to cars and trucks on our roadways, that people may not have large parks accessible to their neighborhoods, and we know there’s some significant inequality to that. So that’s what is driving this movement to seek more streets that are closed to through traffic and ultimately for people walking and biking and whatever it might be.”
Shutting down lanes could complicate travel for emergency services and public transportation, and Schwartz emphasized that any closure must take that impact into account. But he also suggested that signage and common sense can help.
“You certainly can have a mechanism for closing a street that restricts the street to through traffic, but would be available of course for local residents to drive slowly down the street that is now being shared,” he said. “That same entrance could also be used for emergency vehicles, and we all know how to get out of the way of emergency vehicles trying to come down our streets. So I don’t think it’s insurmountable. I think through proper design and enforcement and signage, we could make this happen.”
Lewis said she is not yet dissuaded by city officials’ resistance.
“I’m optimistic that we can create open streets and increase the amount of space for people to exercise and maintain social distance,” she said. “I believe this city can do it. We’ve done harder things, and I believe we can do it.”