Friday, July 24, 2020

Reallocating space to support economic recovery and healthy lifestyles

By Beth Bousley

In response to the pandemic, communities are looking for creative ways to support their businesses while taking care of their residents. Some have approached us to reallocate space on public roadways to allow for more freedom for retailers and restaurants to operate outdoors and for people to stroll, roll, cycle, dine and shop while more easily staying six feet apart.

So we've come up with a plan. The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program.

Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Program
As we began receiving requests from different communities interested in temporary lane reallocation, we developed a set of parameters for considering and responding to these requests.

Under Gov. Inslee's Safe Start Plan, we partnered with the Washington state departments of Health and Commerce to provide communities more access to public roadways to support business recovery and active, healthy lifestyles. This is one more tool for communities to consider as they think about the health of their residents and economic recovery for local businesses.

The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program (pdf 80 kb) allows temporary lane reallocations on some state roadways. The goal is to 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. Across the state, 458 miles of state routes meet the criteria because they are located in a town or area where people live and have speed limits of 35 mph or less.
Parklet in White Salmon provides outdoor seating for restaurant.

The temporary lane reallocation is not one-size-fits-all. Some communities, like Bingen and White Salmon, are replacing a parking space or two with outdoor restaurant or brewpub seating. In Pullman the pandemic reignited the community's interest in the Central Business District Master plan, which is designed to enhance the energy and public spaces in the downtown corridor. By implementing a trial run with temporary lane reallocation along Main Street (which is also a segment of SR 270), Pullman is testing and getting community feedback on elements of the plan at a cost of less than $5,000.

With the approval of the Pullman City Council, we joined the city in looking at the street's traffic volumes and determined Main Street could function adequately with two lanes. They worked together to develop the plans for revisions. Some intersections have been reconfigured to create shorter crosswalks, reducing the distance for people crossing the street and at the same time making it easier for stores and restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalk to help customers remain physically distant from each other. A lane of traffic was converted to a protected bike lane and back-in angled parking, which is serving to calm traffic to help people comply with the posted speed limit. With the protected bike lane, people on bikes have separation and protection that makes it more comfortable to ride than being right next to moving motor vehicles. Back-in parking adds more capacity than other options like parallel parking. It is also safer, because passengers don't need to exit the car into traffic and drivers have better visibility when re-entering traffic.

This trial period will last through the summer and early fall to give the community a sense of how the changes worked with and without Washington State University students present. So far, city officials say that people like the bike lane and new uses of the sidewalk. Crossing the street feels safer. The back-in angled parking presents some challenges. One truck driver shared that he finds the stalls too small, emphasizing that Pullman is an agricultural community with lots of trucks. He wants to see the program through to the end, but wants to make sure Pullman implements what feels right for the community.

WSDOT and the city looked at the street's traffic volumes, and determined
Main Street could function adequately with two lanes.

The extra space was used to change the parallel parking on the south side of Main Street to back-in angled parking.

There is also a new bike lane protected by temporary barriers.

In Pullman, the barriers will be gone by October and auto traffic will flow again.

Opening up portions of roadways helps retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations. This includes outdoor seating at restaurants on sidewalks or part of a roadway as well as curbside pickup locations for retailers.  These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.

Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health. 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. It also provides more room for such activities, especially in towns with narrow sidewalks that aren't conducive to physical distancing or lack ADA accessibility. Our COVD-19 transportation dashboard is showing increases in walking and bicycling well above the same time last year, while driving is down.

Helping communities
SR 14 parklet in Bingen provides outdoor seating for restaurants

This is a community-led program and happens only if a community requests it in a specific location for a limited duration (up to 90 days although it could end sooner or be extended). Currently, Bingen, Pullman, and White Salmon are in the program. A number of communities across the state including Seattle, Everett, Bellevue and Edmonds have opened parking areas or lanes in their city's commercial district for increased open space and business access or have temporarily changed neighborhood streets to provide more walk/bike space while continuing to provide access for drivers who live there or who are providing services or deliveries. Cities with state routes in their business districts should first get buy-in from their community stakeholders, then contact us. Counties can also propose locations in population centers that aren't incorporated as cities or towns.

Every project must meet state safety standards and be approved before implemented, and we will work with them to ensure they meet the following criteria:
  • 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.
  • Local jurisdictions will ensure that they've communicated with the people and businesses affected by the changes and that they report on how the roadway changes work.
  • The duration of temporary lane reallocations will be for up to 90 days, but could vary depending on the agreement with each city.
  • A traffic management plan that will enable people using every mode of transportation to get to their destinations is in place.
In these extraordinary times our goal is to support the wellbeing of people and businesses in interested communities, and ultimately throughout our state.