Every September, city, nonprofit and business leaders cordon off parking spaces around downtown Boise, filling them with pocket parks, mini golf courses, gardens—you name it. On National Park(ing) Day, the sidewalks take over to show how much space automobiles actually take up, and how that space might better be used. Now, in the midst of a pandemic and with car traffic at a low in some areas, the Central District Health Department has floated an unusual idea: “open streets.”
“I think pilots and projects like open streets are always an attractive option,” said Alexis Pickering, a health strategist with CDHD. “A little paint goes a long way. I think this does open a lot of folks’ eyes around how we can use our streets more effectively.”
In a white paper dated May 1, CDHD urged cities to “open” select streets to people and businesses. As the phased reopening of the Idaho economy presses forward, the idea of giving people more space to eat, shop and commute by foot or by pedal has gained traction with local civic leaders as a way to help reduce the threat to public health while encouraging commerce.
Conventional wisdom about slowing the spread of COVID-19 hovers around a few basic principles: hand-washing, staying home when you feel sick, wearing a face mask while indoors or in densely populated places, and social distancing. In fact, the maintenance of adequate space for customers and employees is a requirement of Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s Idaho Rebounds plan. The footprints of businesses like restaurants and retail stores, however, remain the same. In its one-sheet, the CDHD suggests that streets themselves become the spillways into which businesses can reopen.
“...In the crisis brought on by COVID-19, converting specific streets to Open Streets has become an innovative and critical way for cities to ensure the health and safety of residents,” it reads.
A diverse array of supporters have gathered around the proposal, including the Idaho Sierra Club and the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, for the latter of which Pickering is the secretary. Historically an environmental group that has focused on natural spaces, the Idaho Sierra Club in recent years has directed more of its attention to engineered environments—cities—as habitats themselves.
“One of the things we’ve really tried to do over the last decade is having places where people can live and have a high-quality life, and having it be equitable,” said Sierra Club Environmental Programs Manager Eric Willadsen.
Willadsen framed his case for open streets in terms of repurposing thoroughfares to better meet the human needs of Idahoans. Fresh air and sunlight, he said, are benefits nature can confer regardless of whether someone is in the mountains or in their neighborhood, provided leaders optimize urban spaces for that purpose. And the need for access to those things has only increased with the onset of the pandemic, during which many people have confined themselves to their homes.
“In this time of disease that’s very contagious, it sprung on me that this was a way to bring the relief that can be felt from being outside to every neighborhood in the community,” Willadsen said. “We’re seeing these open streets concepts being used for economic rebounding, giving extra space for restaurants and businesses. We can open the economy while also giving people space.”
Much of the national and international news surrounding the open streets concept has gravitated toward urban areas, where population density makes finding creative solutions for limited available space attractive. Several cities in Canada have adopted or are considering policies friendly to the opening of sidewalk patios and closing some streets to auto traffic. In Denver, four streets in three neighborhoods have been closed to thru-traffic to allow easier transportation by foot and bike, which, according to the city, aligns with its Vision Zero program to eliminate transportation deaths there.
For bike, foot and public transportation advocates, changing Boise’s orientation toward its streets has long been something of a Holy Grail, with many organizations pointing to slowed auto traffic and increased non-auto transportation options as economic accelerants. Their hopes have been bolstered by news that the pandemic has caused many companies large and small to encourage their employees to work from home. In recent weeks, Twitter and Square have both made permanent work-from-home-friendly policies. Lacking a crystal ball, however, many transportation advocates are wary of pinning their hopes to open streets as a permanent feature.
“We don’t know what the long-term opportunities are at this time, but of course we’d love to see more space for active mobility,” said Idaho Walk Bike Alliance Executive Director Cynthia Gibson. “If this particular crisis is a genesis for that, we’re certainly thrilled and supportive of that and will do what we can to move that along, but we don’t know what we’ll be doing in two months.”
So far, city and county agencies have smiled on at least some of the efforts to open Boise’s streets. The City of Boise has already reached out to the Ada County Highway District regarding possible allowances for businesses near the alleyway between Eighth Street and Capitol Boulevard, and again on 13th Street near Hyde Park. Though some members of the ACHD Commission warned against the city privileging downtown in its efforts, ACHD Director Bruce Wong was warm to the proposals, saying he looked forward to hearing more specific plans.
“We’ve looked at it; we think it’s a great idea. So when that becomes a little more firm, I’ll make sure you [the commissioners] are all involved in this,” Wong told the commission at its regular meeting on May 13. “...It’s a great idea of what [Boise Mayor Lauren McLean is] attempting to do, and staff is very supportive.”