Local Opinion: When it comes to Tucson streets, 'going back to normal' won't cut it
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Local Opinion: When it comes to Tucson streets, 'going back to normal' won't cut it

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

The “Great Pause” in which we’ve all participated over the last two months has given my family space to observe the rhythm of our neighborhood and see our streets with fresh eyes, soaking in what this moment teaches us about connection, sustainability, mobility and our future.

Air quality is better than it’s been in years. I see more stars at night and colors of the sunset, always good here, seem more intense and vibrant.

Traffic is down significantly. I’ve been sleeping with windows open since interstate noise is noticeably diminished. But reckless driving is up, especially on our wide arterial streets.

Have you been spending more time on your bicycle lately?

The Loop is packed. My family is privileged. We can access the Loop easily from our home. The same can’t be said for many people in Tucson. Yet, it’s been so busy I try to avoid it; maybe you’ve noticed that, too.

Elsewhere, what trends do we see when it comes to supporting people, families and essential workers while traffic volume plummets and demand for safe places to get exercise increases?

Oakland, California, rises to the top with a program local government calls Slow Streets. Intended to support safe physical activity by creating more space for physical distancing, Slow Streets are residential streets closed to through traffic yet open to residents, deliveries, emergency vehicles, so that people can comfortably use low-traffic streets for physically distant walking, wheelchairs, jogging and biking all across the city.

Oakland’s Slow Streets program will eventually close 74 miles, or 10%, of the total street network to through traffic, prioritizing streets for people. The project is in effect until the shelter-in-place order sunsets in California, or as otherwise indicated by the City of Oakland.

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Seattle is permanently closing 20 miles of residential streets with their Stay Healthy Streets initiative. It started in April to temporarily provide more space for residents to get out of the house and exercise while maintaining social distancing during the pandemic and the response is so positive it will stay in effect post-pandemic.

These two cities have identified candidate Slow Streets from their neighborhood greenway or bicycle boulevard plans because of the investments made or planned to connect these streets with traffic calming, signage and signalized crossings (Hawk lights) at major intersections and because they’ve been through a public review process.

Half a dozen cities from Cincinnati to Tampa Bay are closing segments of streets in front of busy commercial areas for expanded seating and retail to support economic recovery efforts as businesses make plans to safely reopen.

Here in Tucson we’re beginning to see local leadership on some of these initiatives. There is a pilot Slow Street on north Fourth Avenue from Speedway to Grant. Neighbors report many people out using it for safe, physically distant biking and walking. Tucson could do much more to join the ranks of other cities rapidly expanding and connecting a network of Slow Streets that would have immediate benefits for residents.

Pima County recently issued guidelines for businesses looking to reopen that waives zoning requirements to encourage outdoor patio seating including in parking lots, on-street parking spaces, and other rights of way, though hopefully sidewalks will not become blocked or more difficult for people to navigate.

Each week more cities respond to this pandemic in ways that support people by creatively repurposing the most abundant resource available to us all — city streets. When it comes to our streets, let’s not race to get back to normal.

Kylie Walzak is the Director of Open Streets for Living Streets Alliance (LSA), a local nonprofit with a mission to advocate for a thriving Tucson by creating great streets for all of us. LSA envisions streets as living public spaces that connect people to places and to each other.

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