A family hangs out on a Slow Street in Oakland. Credit: CITY OF OAKLAND

South Shore senior citizen Josie Conley takes walks regularly to stay healthy during the COVID-19 quarantine. But narrow sidewalks mean that maintaining the recommended six-foot “social distance” from others is kind of like a game of Dodge ‘Em. “My mother doesn’t want to take any chances,” explained her son Shawn Conley, who joins her during his lunch break from his job with the Illinois State Board of Education. He also helps lead the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, a predominantly Black organization with about 120 members.

Josie won’t leave the house unless the sidewalk is clear for half a block in front of her, and once an approaching pedestrian is six or eight houses away, she detours onto the driveway or lawn of an adjacent home to get out of the way. Shawn said other elderly people in the neighborhood use the same approach, steering clear of younger people to avoid respiratory droplets. And since the track at nearby Eckersall Stadium is closed during the pandemic, joggers and exercise walkers are crowding the sidewalks on the perimeter of the park.

Pedestrians and cyclists jockeying for space in the time of coronavirus present a problem on many sidewalks, trails, and parks across Chicago. That’s been especially true since March 26, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the entire shoreline, including the Lakefront Trail, as well as the Chicago Riverwalk and the 606 elevated greenway, in response to social distancing violations on the first warm day of spring.

Some might respond with the ubiquitous “Stay home!” mantra, arguing people shouldn’t be leaving the house during COVID-19 anyway, except for essential jobs and to pick up supplies. But Illinois’s Stay at Home order acknowledges that “walking, hiking, running, or biking” are “essential activities” key for maintaining physical and mental wellness during the crisis.

Even if you aren’t convinced that outdoor exercise is important, many people are walking and biking for essential commutes nowadays to avoid risking viral exposure on transit. CTA ridership is currently down about 80 percent, according to the agency.

Cities all over the country are currently seizing this unique moment in which automobile use has plummeted but speeding has increased to give roadway space to pedestrians and bike riders. New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Madison, the Twin Cities, Denver, and Portland have all been banning cars on stretches of road during the pandemic to allow people to safely travel and get physical activity.

However, there’s little movement on that front from Chicago officials. “The Chicago Department of Transportation is paying close attention to what other cities are doing” was about all spokesman Mike Claffey had to say.

Kyle Lucas is an essential worker with HIV who can’t risk COVID-19 exposure on the CTA. He launched a petition asking the mayor to open streets and/or reopen the Lakefront Trail for biking so essential employees can safely get to work without being struck by speeding drivers. As of last week, more than 1,000 people had signed.

So far Lightfoot has indicated these requests are nonstarters during COVID-19. “The lakefront’s not reopening anytime soon,” she said at a recent press conference. “There’s lots of bike lanes and bike trails throughout the city.”

A major reason why open streets hasn’t gained traction is that the Active Transportation Alliance isn’t supporting it. “A pandemic does not seem like the most appropriate moment to be pushing forward this vision,” the group stated in an April 7 blog post.

Active Trans argued that doing an open streets program would be resource intensive. The organization questioned the wisdom of promoting a sustainable transportation program during COVID-19, when healthcare, employment, and housing are urgent concerns in neighborhoods of color. “In conversations with community partners serving Latinx, Black, and Asian communities, nobody pointed to open streets as an immediate need,” the blog post says. The group also argued that it’s problematic to deploy CPD officers to enforce street closures in Black and Brown neighborhoods that are already overpoliced.

Active Trans’s open streets stance has drawn a backlash from members at a critical time. The group recently canceled its main annual fundraiser, Bike the Drive, for safety reasons. Now previous donors say they’re pulling their support. “Having the major transportation advocacy group for our city sit on the sidelines when there is an immediate and clear need and opportunity [for open streets] is unfathomable,”commented software engineer David Altenburg on a Streetsblog Chicago post about Bike the Drive.

Shortly after Active Trans’s post came out, Oakland, California, announced plans for Slow Streets, a clever approach to opening roadways that addresses most of those concerns. It’s creating a 74-mile network of side streets where people can safely walk, run, and bike in the road. Through traffic is banned, but motorists can still access local destinations. It’s quick and cheap, with the only infrastructure cost being for traffic cones and signs. Since it doesn’t involve main streets, no additional policing is needed.

Oakland officials have argued that Slow Streets is equity focused. In an interview last week with Streetsblog USA, Oakland mobility policy director Warren Logan stressed that a major goal was to make it easier for low-income people without cars to do essential trips.

But there’s been pushback to the open streets movement from some mobility justice advocates of color who’ve argued it’s mostly white people who are promoting such programs without enough input from organizations and individuals in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. “I’m feeling pressure from white advocates to advocate for open streets,”wrote a member of The Untokening, a mobility justice collective, in its recommendations for equitably navigating the COVID-19 world.

Active Trans declined to tell us which community partners in Latinx, Black, and Asian communities they spoke with. So we asked dozens of community organizations, aldermen, and transportation advocates in neighborhoods of color whether an Oakland-style program might be beneficial during the pandemic. Here’s who responded by press time.

Christian Diaz, lead housing organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said he likes the concept in theory, but argued now is not the time. “While [it’s] by no means a terrible idea I don’t have reason to believe this is a priority right now for people who are hungry and at risk of homelessness.”

Derek Lau, program assistant for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said, “A program that could potentially attract a large crowd of people is dangerous.” After we clarified that Oakland’s Slow Streets model would be spread over dozens of miles, coalition director Grace Chan McKibben said they’d be interested in seeing whether that strategy is successful.

Torrey Barrett, CEO of the Washington Park–based KLEO Community Family Life Center, said Slow Streets is a good idea for areas that lack recreational amenities. But he’d like the program to be combined with additional benefits for low-income residents, such as the city funding bikes for locals and partnering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to distribute meals on the streets. 

Logan Square alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a Democratic Socialist, is in favor of trying Slow Streets. “The pilot programs being rolled out in other cities should be done here in Chicago to provide opportunities for people to safely walk, run, and bike in the street while practicing social distancing,” his office said in a statement.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president with the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said Slow Streets would work well in dense parts of town with limited access to recreational space. However, she said it would be important to educate residents about the no-through-traffic rule.

Elihu Blanks, a South Shore resident who regularly attends Chicago’s quarterly Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meetings, said he likes the Slow Streets concept, but doesn’t trust drivers to comply with an unenforced ban on through traffic.

Deloris Lucas, who leads the bike group We Keep You Rollin’ in the far-south Riverdale community area, said she doesn’t think Slow Streets is especially needed in Riverdale, where side streets are fairly quiet, but “I do think it’s a great idea to provide more spaces to ride during the pandemic.”

As for South Shore resident Shawn Conley, he said being able to safely walk in the street would prevent his mother Josie from having to evade other pedestrians. “It would increase her level of comfort,” he said. “I know we’re supposed to be sheltering at home, but as it warms up, people are going to need to get exercise, fresh air, and Vitamin D. So the more I think about Slow Streets, the more I like it.”  v