May 13, 2020

It’s a Thing: Flow Streets, Slow Streets, just not Closed Streets

PT: Originally published in April.  The video is one of the best so far, from the initial use of the Beach Flow Way (so-called since it allows cyclists to sort themselves out by speed and comfort) to the self-sorting that Vancouverites did on Sunset Beach, making it more than ever a Great Lawn. 

And more than ever it’s clear: Open Streets are a Thing – one of the lasting changes to come out of the pandemic.

Click here to download video: Beach reallocation

Whether cities like Oakland calls them ‘Flow Streets’ or ‘Slow Streets’, they’re part of a larger movement to reallocate street space for the priorities of a pandemic.

Initial reporting suggested Oakland was going to call these calmed avenues ‘Flow Streets’ – a nice name, but apparently not what was intended:

Oakland will slow down a whopping 74 miles of streets to vehicular traffic starting this weekend to give pedestrians, joggers, and cyclists more room for social distancing.

It’s part of an emergency measure called “Oakland Slow Streets,” an effort to give residents more space to walk, run, and cycle safely through neighborhoods as shelter-in-place orders remain in effect. …

Note: This won’t be a total closure to cars, according to East Bay Times, but instead a way to “publicize roads to be especially alert of cyclists and pedestrians.” Local traffic and emergency vehicles will still be allowed on the roads.

It really is important to emphasize that these streets are not ‘closed,’ and never were intended to stop all vehicle traffic.  But even in Vancouver, the Beach Avenue reallocation is being termed by some as ‘closed’ – as though any restriction on cars is all that matters.  It’s a bias we’ll see a lot more in the fight to defund and eliminate any City progress for bikeways, greenways, safe streets, traffic calming, road diets – call it what you will.  For opponents, It comes down to the same thing: streets are for cars, and the rest are dispensable frills.

In the meantime, the move to flow or slow streets is, ahem, picking up speed.  From the New York Times:

With roads cleared of traffic because of the coronavirus pandemic, some cities across the country have repurposed streets into car-free zones, giving pedestrians and cyclists extra room to spread out and practice social distancing.

Cities including Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif., have closed streets to through motor traffic. Others are extending sidewalks to make more space for pedestrians looking to stay at least six feet apart. And some municipalities are considering adopting similar measures. …

Jonathan Berk, a proponent of new urbanism, applauded the efforts in Boston and beyond and said they allow residents to see their cities in a new light.

“I’m hoping that as we continue over the next few weeks and months to allocate more now-empty streets to people, it will show people the benefits of a less auto-centric urban environment,” he said in an email. “Showing urban residents what’s possible when you have this ‘blank canvas’ of street space to utilize for walking, biking, running, playing games with neighbors and just enjoying as a new, public neighborhood open space.”


So far, Vancouver has done only one reallocation – Beach Avenue from Stanley Park to Hornby.  As more neighbourhoods will want their own versions, and health authorities continue to emphasize the need to ‘stay home,’ the question then is: what’s next?


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  1. Yeah, but try explaining to a driver that he/she is not allowed to use the roadway / lane even though it is “open”.
    The word “closed” conveys that simply and succinctly to that driver.
    It may not be technically correct in a broader context, but it conveys the message to the ordinary roadway user (the drivers) that his/her rights have been usurped.

    1. That’s why it’s important to have the right wording. The “driver” is still allowed to use the roadway (with other modes) but not allowed to drive there.
      We have restrictions on travel modes all over. Some streets heavy trucks are not allowed on. Some places you must dismount when cycling. Some places only trains are allowed on. Etc. It’s really no big deal and shouldn’t be taken personally. A person’s travel mode should not be used as an identity. If someone decides that they must drive everywhere for every trip it’s not up to everyone else to accommodate this choice.

      1. “That’s why it’s important to have the right wording. The “driver” is still allowed to use the roadway (with other modes) but not allowed to drive there…”

        Oh my, that’s downright Orwellian.

        It’s all unicorns and rainbows when people can’t go to work, get bored and the sun is out. Quite a different story when the city reopens. We can all picture what a ghost town this lane will be when the autumn rains come.

        1. I don’t think it’s Orwellian at all. Notice I put driver in quotes. The restrictions are not to a type of person but to an activity. Again, that’s why the right wording is important. You should never talk about types of people (driver, cyclist, pedestrian, etc.) but about activities. (Driving, cycling, walking, etc.) It’s more connected to reality as well as inclusive. (Not to mention that you can still drive west on Beach Ave.)

          I highly doubt that this temporary lane will still be up in the fall. It is here to allow more space for people to walk on the Seawall this summer. It won’t be needed later on. I assume at some point things will get reassessed and reconfigured.
          This brings up another point. What should be done here after and permanently? West of Denman it’s been problematic for a long time. Should the bike path and sidewalks be redone? Should the lane reallocation be made permanent?
          East of Denman as well, do we want to keep this like the temporary thing? Make a new bike path in the park?
          It’s a good opportunity to see how things can be different after.

  2. PS – also analogous to “Road Closures” for the Vancouver Sun Run, the Vancouver Marathon or a street festival.

    I suppose that a road could never be “closed” unless it is under construction and torn up.
    Even then there would be tractors, backhoes and workers travelling along the right-of-way too –
    so maybe a dedicated roadway can NEVER be “closed”?

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