Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
I don’t drive.
There are plenty of reasons for it. One is that I failed my driver’s test in high school, and I was too lazy (and exhausted and busy and so many other things) to take it again. Also, I don’t really need to — I have incredibly kind and generous parents and friends who are willing to pick me up and drop me off and enough money to pay for Ubers for the times they can’t.
I don’t like driving, either. It makes me anxious, and I feel bad doing it. It’s not for any noble reason. I’m not one of the cool kids who bikes or takes the bus because it’s better for the environment or their health. I just don’t drive.
That means I’ve been on almost every type of sidewalk imaginable. I’ve been on cramped Washington, D.C., sidewalks where people are forced to walk in the street because there’s not enough room for everyone; not-quite-connecting Dallas, Texas, sidewalks; dirt-paved Paramaribo, Suriname, sidewalks; bumpy College Park sidewalks that a wheelchair user couldn’t even think of using.
And I think it’s time to rethink sidewalks and the streets they’re next to.
This isn’t a new idea, by any means. Sidewalks didn’t exist for a long time: Streets were, for most of human history, a place for all modes of transportation to coexist. Many cities have taken steps to become car-free by expanding bike routes, making public transportation free and more. Most focused on reducing air and noise pollution.
But now those goals have shifted a little. Beyond the environmental impact of closing streets to cars, going car-free means more space for the little-considered pedestrian — six feet of space, in fact, to allow for social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It’s an unfortunate but not entirely unwelcome development to see everyone giving walkers, joggers, strollers, lollygaggers and toddlers the same thought we’ve given motorists for decades, the thoughts that led us to near-complete automobile domination. No cars on streets means more people out and about with more space between them and, crucially, more insight into what life can look like when this is all over.
We can imagine a world where pedestrians can move more freely and safely. We can live without looking over our shoulders for a jogger or a cyclist on a narrow sidewalk next to a busy road. We can have grocery stores and schools within walking distance of our homes. We can have massive open-air cafes and better-performing businesses. We can build stronger networks for mutual aid and solidarity with our neighbors, who we can see on strolls around our community uninterrupted by honking horns and crosswalks. We can have eyes on the street, watching over our kids. We can walk to a park instead of driving. We can devote far less time and energy to finding a parking space. We can give people space to breathe, walk, cycle, sit and, most importantly, live in all the space that car-laden streets have taken from us.
We can reclaim streets for people.
We can do this by starting swiftly. It’s critical that we use the momentum that major cities like New York have started. Obviously, some roads are going to stay open so essential workers can do their jobs, but others can be shut down and rerouted. But closing off streets in parks and in areas directly surrounding them is a fantastic start.
Granting people green space — all of it — is a good first step to a future where pedestrians are prioritized. It gives them a taste of what car-free streets can provide, like not having to jostle other people on sidewalks to get to parks and being able to safely cross idyllic park streets. Then, we can look to residential streets for the next step: People might be able to have socially distant barbecues in the street instead of the backyard as we enter summer. This can foster greater ties to their communities later on.
And from there, once we’ve tried this radical experiment (and visit to history) where we play and live, the possibilities are limitless. We just need to give expanding the sidewalk into the street a try.
Serena Saunders, opinion editor, is a senior public policy major and a graduate student in public policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.