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How are communities using open streets to accommodate economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Becky Steckler, AICP, and Tiffany Swift, Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon and Carlos Pardo, NUMO alliance

People walking dog down street alongside outdoor restaurant

Photo: Shafaq Choudry

COVID-19’s disruption in transportation behaviors has created an opportunity for communities around the world to reallocate travel lanes, curb parking, and entire streets from cars to other uses—a move which would have likely faced significant political and public opposition in ‘normal’ times in the United States. The most common reasons for closing or restricting the movement of motorized vehicles on streets during the pandemic is for enabling safe recreation, restaurants, and retail for reviving local communities and the economy. 

Restaurants and Retail

Restaurants depend on high capacity in order to make a profit, and many lack cash reserves to make it through many months of closures or reduced operations. According to a survey of small businesses conducted in the United States in March 2020, nearly half do not expect to stay in business until the end of year if the crisis lasts four months. Like many of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic impacts are disproportionately borne by African American owned small businesses. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that between February and April 2020 the amount of working Black business owners fell by 41%, compared to 22% for all small business owners.  

Commercial open street initiatives are intended to help restaurants and retail businesses achieve the capacity needed for profitability by giving businesses additional space to meet physical distancing requirements of re-opening, accelerating the movement towards flexible use of the street. The COVID Mobility Works database maps  170+ open streets initiatives including Tampa’s Lift Up Local Economic Recovery Plan as part of which three cafe and retail zones launched in early May 2020 with full road closures to be used by adjacent restaurants and bars; Denver is currently soliciting proposals from interested establishments to participate in a similar program; Portland, OR has also announced an expansion of the Safe Streets program to allow restaurants, bars, retail, and personal services businesses to use the right-of-way. The cities of Washington DC, New York, and San Francisco have created detailed guidelines for permits associated with this use, and NACTO has created specific design guidelines for these “streateries”. In many cities of the Global South, restaurants have always had informal arrangements with people dining on the street. In Europe, many restaurants had already “al fresco” dining established so their reopening was possible with minor adjustments (mostly adding protective divisions between tables).

While dining is the most common use of the public space for economic purposes, some cities are facilitating temporary curbside pick-up zones to support restaurants offering delivery only services and others are allowing queuing on the sidewalk for businesses that require additional space for physical distancing. In London, United Kingdom’s Barnes Community, the local business association is working with businesses to make it easier for customers to follow health guidelines while waiting in line. In addition, cities like Winter Haven, FL and Seattle, WA have also reallocated parking space for pickup zones. 

Additional questions

  • Will open streets allow local restaurants and retail businesses to be economically viable? 
  • Are open streets safe for customers and employees during a pandemic?
  • Should communities continue to allow dining and retail uses in off-street and on-street parking spaces permanently? 
  • Will these changes generate a new form of restaurant service, or spur the industry’s formalization, throughout the world?

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