In the last six months, City Council has approved a number of lane and road closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting in June, weekend street closures downtown were implemented temporarily – and have been extended, twice – to support businesses in need of space to serve customers:
Nine sections of city streets are now closed to traffic on weekends (Friday afternoon to Sunday evening) through this fall season:
- Main Street (William Street to Liberty Street)
- Main Street (Liberty Street to Washington Street)
- Washington Street (South Ashley to Main Street)
- South State Street (East Washington Street to East William Street)
- Church Street (South University to Willard Street)
- Detroit Street (East Kingsley Avenue to North Fifth Avenue)
- Forest Street alley
- Maynard Street (East Liberty Street to East William Street)*
*Note that this section of Maynard is closed 7 days a week
In May, I cosponsored another program – “Slow Streets” – to allow residents to request closure of streets that they live on:
A total of 26 residential streets are now closed to all but local traffic, making it safer for cyclists and pedestrians to find safe socially distanced space to move within neighborhoods. The following streets now exist as “Slow Streets”:
- Arborview (Miller to Westwood)
- Baldwin (Stadium to Packard)
- Brandywine (Packard to Yost)
- Broadway (Plymouth to Plymoth)
- Brooklyn (Packard to Golden)
- Bydding (Brooks to Summit/Miner)
- Chapin (Huron to Miller)
- Crest (Liberty to Washington)
- Elmwood Bike Blvd (Packard to Edgewood)
- Granger (Ferdon to Packard)
- Harpst (Packard to Tremmel)
- Hikone (Packard to the southerly end)
- Iroquois (Packard to Stadium)
- Jewett (Page to Packard)
- Lillian (Eli to Terhune)
- Longshore (Barton to Argo Livery)
- Morton (Ferdon to Harding)
- North Fourth (Beakes to Depot)
- Redwood (Platt to Springbrook)
- Shadowood (Ellsworth to Hemlock)
- Snyder (Seventh to Main Street)
- Springbrook (Packard to Marshall)
- Starwick (Pontiac to Barton)
- Sunset (Newport to Wildt)
- Washington Bike Blvd (Revena to First)
- Yost (Washtenaw to Terhune)
In July, another program was approved by Council, to adjust traffic on connecting streets outside of residential neighborhoods. Mayor Taylor and I sponsored the “Healthy Streets” program downtown:
This program temporarily closed traffic lanes on five streets within the DDA district. Affected streets in this downtown program are:
- South Main (1 block)
- Packard (1 block)
- State/North University
Also approved in July, Mayor Taylor and I sponsored a program of “Healthy Streets” outside of downtown:
This program temporarily blocks off vehicular traffic lanes on these three streets:
- South Main (between Pauline and East Stadium)
- East Packard (between Platt and Eisenhower)
- Broadway/Swift (between Detroit Street and Maiden Lane)
This past week, I received a phone call from a Ward 4 resident, asking me about the arrangement of construction barrels on South Main, which block off a whole lane of the road. As a neighborhood resident, he had a close-up view of the impact: traffic diverted off of Main Street (onto quieter side streets) as people tried to avoid backups on the major thoroughfare. My constituent had no idea that what he was looking at was part of the “Healthy Streets” program, he had assumed that it was some kind of construction. He was very surprised to hear that the lane closure was intentional and unrelated to any work project.
In the last few weeks, I have received many emails and phone calls from residents who describe alarming and dangerous safety issues on South Main, East Packard, and the Broadway bridge.
THREE STREETS OUT OF FORTY-THREE
A majority of Council (including myself) voted in favor of all the traffic interventions proposed during this pandemic: weekend street closures for downtown businesses, local-traffic-only designations on residential streets, and experimental lane closures on other roads. Of the forty- three streets and roads impacted by these programs, three of them have prompted significant negative feedback, so much that Council responded.
The “Healthy Streets” program (outside of downtown) was designed as a temporary experiment (90 days) to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists during this pandemic, including the three streets of South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift. Initial response to these re-configurations was overwhelmingly negative. I biked these locations in the early days of the experiment to see them for myself. What I saw was consistent with what others had reported: the arrangement of barrels was legitimately confusing to both motorized and non-motorized traffic alike. On Packard, I saw pedestrians and cyclists opting to use existing off-road paths instead of the lanes that had theoretically been cleared for them.
At our September 21st City Council meeting, CM Ramlawi proposed that we end the experiments on South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift early, on October 1st. (These experiments were originally planned to continue through November 29th or the first snowfall.) At that meeting, staff explained their intention to collect data on the experiments in the second week of October. I supported staff’s plan to get this data, so I moved to postpone our discussion until October 19th. A majority of Council approved this postponement. Data helps us make better decisions in the future.
At our last meeting (October 5th), Council considered the issue of these three streets one more time. Since our previous discussion, Council had received two more weeks of very specific feedback from residents: safety hazards for the elderly and disabled attempting to board buses, reckless driving (in response to the lane closures), as well as the unintended consequences of traffic spilling onto quieter side streets.
For me, the City’s transportation manager offered the most compelling argument to end the experiment early, when he shared his own observations of the traffic reconfigurations. He explained:
“Are there bad behaviors happening, where cars are dodging in and out of those areas? Are cars parking in those areas? They are. I’m not going to lie to you and say I haven’t observed that myself. I go regularly up and down the Main Street one in particular since I live on the south side of town. I’ve observed it. My observation has been that those actions have been intentional, it wasn’t that a motorist was driving accidentally in that space, it was that a motorist was trying to bypass something which is an unfortunate series of events and one that we are concerned about and one that we are trying to properly place the cones and barrels and barricades in such a way to prevent that from happening as much as possible.”
I voted with the majority of Council to end the experiments on these three roads – South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift – on October 15. I believe this was the right thing to do because the road changes were not safe and were not likely to become more safe over the course of the experiment.
Many residents are frustrated that we did not end these experiments sooner. Some residents are mad that we did not allow them to continue through November 29th. I believe it was worth attempting these experiments, but ending these three specific streets early (leaving the remaining forty street closures in place) was the right thing to do.
In our local community, a few loud voices promote a very all-or-nothing, emotional (i.e. angry) approach to traffic management and non-motorized infrastructure. For those folks who are annoyed that we even tried the experiments on South Main, East Packard, and Broadway/Swift, I would point out that those streets are a relatively small piece of a larger effort (most of which has been helpful and positive and widely appreciated by many). From others, I’ve seen hand-wringing and conspiracy theory that the failure of these three street reconfigurations is evidence of hostility to children and safety. Rhetoric like this leaves no room for experiment and data collection or observation and adjustment to facts-on-the-ground. When incremental change is furiously rejected by skeptics and advocates alike, we do not have a healthy environment for arriving at solutions.
On a personal note, my own biking season will end when the cold weather hits. I have not invested in the kind of cold weather gear that would keep me comfortable on a bicycle in freezing temperatures. When there is snow or ice on the ground, I definitely don’t feel safe riding a bicycle. I know that I am not alone and there are many cyclists who take this winter break from riding. In the coming winter months, I look forward to serious and thoughtful conversation about non-motorized transportation needs during this pandemic, which is likely to continue well into the spring. I believe there is a path forward if we sincerely want to find one.