Berkeley will set aside 2 miles of roadway for a “Healthy Streets” initiative to allow room for walking, biking, and outdoor activities while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
Three sections of streets will be barricaded off on one side to reduce traffic and increase access for pedestrians. They include Ninth street from Hearst Avenue to Dwight Way, Russell Street from Adeline to Mabel streets, and Addison Street from Sacramento to Grant streets. The streets will have barriers at one end and signs that say “Watch for pedestrians and bikes/consider other routes.” There will also be signs midway through each block reminding people to slow down, social distance, and cover their nose and mouth.
Vehicles will still be able to drive through the areas at a slow speed — 15 mph — but are encouraged to use other routes.
“This pandemic affects our community in so many ways that it’s wonderful to give our community more space to get out even as they shelter in place,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an announcement. “This is a creative way to re-use public space for the common good.”
The program is similar to “Slow Streets” initiatives launched in Oakland and San Francisco in April. Walk Bike Berkeley first suggested closing off streets in March after shelter-in-place orders went into effect regionwide on March 17.
While other cities worked quickly to open up more pavement to walkers, bikes, skateboards, people pushing baby carriages and others, Berkeley moved slowly. City staff has worked to implement the idea since March but was slowed down by a massive logistical response for the city’s Emergency Operations Center.
City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said during one of Arreguín’s weekly town halls that the program would launch May 21, but later told Berkeleyside that the logistics were more complicated than she expected. She said that creating a “Healthy Streets” program would require a “huge volunteer effort” to get going. Walk Bike Berkeley and Berkeley Path Wanderers will be offering volunteers. The city worked on purchasing supplies for the program over the last several weeks and is designating the streets within its existing and planned 30 miles of bicycle boulevards.
“We’ve already been a city that’s been innovative in this arena in the past, so this is not new to Berkeley, but this should be expanded for Berkeley,” Williams-Ridley said, calling attention to Walk Bike Berkeley’s planning efforts. “For the folks that are out there that put the pressure on, thank you.”
During the pandemic, many residents have taken to neighborhood strolls to combat the isolation of being stuck at home. Due to physical distancing requirements, crowded areas can force pedestrians to step into the road to avoid violating rules. The new program hopes to create safer outdoor conditions to improve health and non-car access to essential destinations, like jobs, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Williams-Ridley added during a town hall early this month that the program will do its best not to disrupt deliveries of essential foods, medication, and services.
Liza Lutzker, a member of Bike Walk Berkeley’s coordinating committee, emphasized that the program is a public health response to COVID-19, not a subversive method to keep slow streets throughout Berkeley. She said Walk Bike Berkeley informed the city they do not want law enforcement to be part of the program, and the group is instead focusing on economic recovery, health outcomes and improved access for residents in all areas of the city.
“What we would like to see continue afterward is a strong commitment from the city to make it easier, and more comfortable and safer to walk, bike and use public transportation and other non-single car trips,” she said.
City Councilmember Lori Droste, a longtime advocate of pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements and a partner with Walk Bike Berkeley, said she strongly supports the program.
“This is one piece of our public health response, we want to ensure that people can maximize social distancing and get essential exercise so we can maintain or public health standards,” Droste said. “This is integral to any approach, in any city.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to clarify and add more information about the ‘Healthy Streets’ program.