Twin Cities bicyclists and pedestrians who are uneasy about recreational-trail congestion at a time of social distancing got a gift in recent days: The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis closed off portions of roads near parks and lakes to be used for biking and walking.
The closures, though, are effective only through the scheduled end of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order on April 10.
Bicycling and walking organizations around the country have been urging cities to be more ambitious, closing roadways indefinitely while the pandemic rages — perhaps even forever in a nod to ecology and urban tranquility.
The local closures kicked off March 27 when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board announced it was blocking off parkways near Lake Harriet and Lake Nokomis. On Friday, the board added three more parkways.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Friday announced three roadway closures as follows:
- Como Regional Park: East Como Lake Drive from East Como Boulevard to Lexington Parkway
- Phalen Regional Park: East Shore Drive from Johnson Parkway to Arlington Avenue
- Cherokee Regional Park: Cherokee Heights Boulevard from Baker/Chippewa to Annapolis Street East
Carter, in a statement, said the closures come in response to resident requests for more outdoor room to effectively engage in social distancing.
“As an avid runner with a newborn daughter at home, I know that getting outdoors is critical to our well-being — if we can do so responsibly,” Carter said. “Our increasingly crowded sidewalks, trails and bikeways demand new spaces and new conversations to ensure we can all safely get out and about.”
The move is not without precedent. In September, St. Paul traditionally closes off major traffic arteries and turns them over to bicyclists for the St. Paul Classic, which last year drew 5,500 participants for leisurely rides over 15-, 32- and 47-mile routes.
St. Paul’s move may have been partly prompted by the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, which in a letter to city officials pushed for road closures. The group had expressed alarm at trails that become narrow in spots, forcing bicyclists and pedestrians to clump together — particularly now with increased demand.
The coalition has proposed closing portions of Mississippi River Boulevard, East Como Lake Drive, East Shore Drive, Horton Avenue and Wheelock Parkway.
Local bicycling advocates, while welcoming the closures, argue they should be kept in place at least through the end of April, when the popular 30 Days of Biking program ends.
“This will keep riders, walkers, and joggers safer while ensuring we have a good place to get outside during this social-distancing period,” Patrick Stephenson, 30 Days of Biking founder, said in a Facebook post.
Walz has said his order may be extended through the end of April, and it is conceivable St. Paul and Minneapolis would follow suit with road-closure extensions.
But other cities have been bolder in their road closures — sometimes making them open-ended in a bid to encourage socially responsible outdoor recreation during a pandemic that might last for months.
The Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has taken this issue nationwide with a push to create safe spaces for months-long, seven-days-a-week, 24/7 walking and biking during the pandemic.
“Local trails, sidewalks and other outdoor facilities are overwhelmed as people seek spaces to engage in physical activity in their neighborhoods,” the group says. “That’s why we need to encourage local officials to close certain streets to cars during this pandemic to provide safe places to walk, bike and stay active.”
Duluth officials have been aggressive about closing off roads with the city’s bicyclists and pedestrians in mind, and with an eye to reducing congestion on its popular lakefront paths and other much-used conduits.
On March 26, the city announced it was blocking off one-mile portions of two roads. This provides a total of 4.5 miles of protected bicycling and walking when seasonal closures unrelated to the pandemic are taken into account.
Another round of closures is imminent, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, told an online audience during a Thursday webinar sponsored by the conservancy. Additional road shutdowns across the city are possible, he added.
Duluth sees this as a wellness issue with residents being at home more than usual and needing regular outdoor forays for their mental health, Williams said.
“Our present focus is getting the community through this crisis physically and emotionally,’ he said.
“Our goal is not risk elimination but risk management,” he added. “It would be impractical and foolhardy to try to eliminate all risk by cooping everyone up. What are the risks we can live with?”
The city has shut down public bathrooms, playgrounds and community centers because they are deemed unsafe during the pandemic.
But in some places, road closures are themselves seen as a health hazard because they potentially encourage residents to congregate.
In San Francisco, for instance, a grassroots campaign to close JFK Drive during the city’s shelter-in-place period got shot down by health officials even though the popular Golden Gate Park artery already had a history of Sunday closures.
“This was incredibly disappointing to hear, and I personally was crushed,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco, which had pushed for the closure. “But we also know that the Department of Public Health is overwhelmed. Continued pressure will not be well-received, and we need to respect that right now.”
In Philadelphia, though, road closures are seen as a no-brainer. A portion of the city’s Martin Luther King Drive on March 20 was closed indefinitely, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With recreational-trail traffic quadrupling “and all those folks being concentrated, it was impossible, really, to keep that safe distance,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Everyone was happy and pleased that this could be done so quickly.”
In Ohio, the vast Cleveland Metroparks system has closed about a half-dozen roads for use exclusively by bicyclists and pedestrians.
Some believe these new bicycling and pedestrian corridors should be kept in operation after the pandemic wanes.
“The coronavirus pandemic presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for cities to remake their streets by taking space away from cars and giving it to pedestrians and bicyclists — permanently,” Andrew J. Hawkins, a writer for tech site The Verge, said last month.