WSDOT will reallocate space on some state highways for walking, biking and commercial use during the outbreak

Cities across the country, including Seattle, Bellevue, Bothell, Edmonds and others around the region, have been experimenting with repurposing street space to provide more room for socially-distanced movement and outdoor commercial activity. They have provided expanded space for walking and biking to avoid close passing on skinny paths and allowed businesses to expand into road space to provide, for example, outdoor restaurant seating. These efforts attempt to make better use of road space, which occupies an enormous percentage of all public space in a city, to meet the needs of the moment. When indoor customer interactions must be limited to prevent coronavirus transmission, the best use of our outdoor space changes.

In many communities across the state, especially smaller cities and towns, the main commercial street is also a state highway. So while counties and municipalities have a lot of control over local streets, they often do not have jurisdiction over the state highway that serves as their Main Street. And these highways are almost never comfortable for crossing on foot or traveling by bike, two modes that have increased in use as people seek ways to stay active and get around affordably. And businesses on state highways are dealing with the same indoor customer restrictions as everywhere else.

Far too often throughout the past century, the state has put car throughput on state highways above the needs of the communities these highways pass through. The primary commercial streets in so many communities are often very difficult to safely cross on foot, for example, which is bad for businesses. The result is more cars passing by, sure, but also less incentive for people driving those cars to stop.

But the attitude at WSDOT has been changing, and the latest effort is an example of the department seeing its role as not just about moving cars but also about fostering successful business districts and community life in the places built around state highways.

“In most cities, a quarter of all its land is taken up by streets,” Governor Jay Inslee said in a WSDOT press release. “I applaud the agencies’ work to ensure this land has flexible uses that can improve health and safety, and jumpstart the economy.”

There are not a lot of other state departments of transportation working on programs like this (please comment below if you know of examples). The “temporary lane reallocations” can be used to promote “physical health, mental and emotional health, equitable and safe mobility, and economic recovery.” The projects would attempt to create “safer, lower-stress roadways that also reduce crowding at gathering points, especially in areas where it is difficult to meet physical distancing guidelines,” according to the program-creation document (PDF). they can also “temporarily reallocate some public space for residents and businesses” such as “increased sidewalk space or outdoor seating/sales space, or more room to walk or bicycle on portions of existing roadways.”

Local agencies have to request these changes, and the state will work with local agencies to design, install and maintain the changes. So it’s not a top-down measure. Eligible highways must be in population centers “or other locations where there is inadequate physical distancing access to destinations.” They also must already have speed limits of 35 MPH or lower. The program does not apply to “full-control, limited-access highways” like interstates and other similar state routes. Options include:

  • Partial highway lane reallocation – temporarily reallocates a portion of highway lanes to provide access and public space for active transportation, and retain a minimum of one lane for through vehicles in each direction.
  • Full highway lane reallocation – temporarily reallocates a full highway lane to provide access and public space for active transportation, and retain a minimum of one lane for through vehicles in each direction.
  • Complete highway reallocation – allows complete active transportation accessibility and removes vehicle traffic from a section of the entire roadway. Complete reallocations should be limited in duration, such as for weekend closures, and Saturday or Sunday partial or full day closures, and may require a signed detour route.
  • On-street parking removal – temporarily removes on street parking to provide access and public space for active transportation while retaining full highway movement.

More details from WSDOT:

With the arrival of summer and more counties relaxing restrictions under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, the Washington state departments of Health, Commerce and Transportation have joined together to provide more access to public roadways in support of active, healthy communities and business recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This virus has hit people and businesses hard, and we need creative solutions to mitigate the virus while also resuming necessary economic activity. In most cities, a quarter of all its land is taken up by streets,” Inslee said. “I applaud the agencies’ work to ensure this land has flexible uses that can improve health and safety, and jumpstart the economy.”

The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program  (pdf 88 kb) allows temporary lane reallocations on some state roadways to allow walkers and cyclists more space to maintain physical distance, and to provide greater access to businesses along “main street” highways. This temporary change to some traffic lanes could let towns increase space for people walking or biking, or create outdoor seating for restaurants and sales areas for retailers, while maintaining physical distance to help reduce exposure to the virus.

“Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “Providing this extra public space encourages people and families to get outdoors and participate in more physical activities, which is especially important today to help cope with the stress of COVID-19.”

“Opening up portions of roadways will help retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations,” said Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.”

“A number of communities across the state have already approached us about opening parking areas or lanes in their city’s commercial district for increased open space and business access,” said Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar. “We’re pleased to collaborate with them to find safe solutions that work for all users of the roadway.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation will work with requesting cities and counties to evaluate roadway segments that meet criteria for lane reallocation that is safe for all users. Eligible state highway locations will be on roadways with 35 mph speed limits or lower and within population centers with demonstrated lack of space for physical distancing for walking, bicycling or other forms of active transportation. The duration of temporary lane reallocations will be for up to 90 days, but could vary depending on the agreement with each city.

WSDOT asks interested local jurisdictions to ensure that they’ve communicated with the people and businesses affected by the changes and that they report on how the roadway changes work. Towns could use this reallocation to test and learn from changes they might want to consider implementing in the future.

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