Safe Streets in the Time of Social Distancing

Running in the street to keep your distance from others shouldn't be illegal

Running in the street to keep a safe distance from others shouldn’t be illegal

Public health officials currently allow walking and biking for exercise and essential transportation in Seattle as long as you stay six feet away from everyone else. This is important for both our physical and mental health, and to help save money when things are tight for so many right now (transportation is a major household cost, second only to housing).

Unfortunately, we’ve been hearing from a lot of people about dangerously crowded sidewalks, trails, and parks as well as an increase in speeding on our now mostly empty streets. Luckily, there are many solutions that could help alleviate these issues. 

Before we begin laying out our vision, we want to state clearly that we will not take an advocacy position that goes against recommendations or rules from our local public health officials, and that some of these ideas may need further vetting by public health experts before they are implemented. 


We’re thinking about coronavirus response as a three-phase strategy

  1. Harm Reduction: We should focus now on reducing dangerous crowding on our sidewalks, trails, and in our parks. 
  2. Adaptation: We need to be proactive in adapting our streets to prepare for the summer, when people will be eager to get outside and enjoy our sidewalks, trails, and parks. 
  3. A Green and Just Rebound: In the long term, just as Seattle is leading the way in the United States for social distancing, we can lead the way out of the impending economic recession and towards a greener, more equitable, and thriving city. 

We also want to hear your ideas. Click here to jump to the survey.

Phase 1 — Harm Reduction 

Here are things we can do in less than a week, with very little planning, staff time, or resources to keep people safe as they recreate or travel while the stay-at-home order is in effect:

  • Dispersed Recreation: Everyone can help reduce crowding in parks and on trails by recreating through less traveled parts of your neighborhood (click for a walking map or biking map).

SE Seattle walking map clipping

    • Park Streets for People: At the same time, we must recognize that as long as parks are open, people will want to visit them, so we need to provide enough space for people to be able to safely pass each other. That’s why we’re proposing closing streets through parks to cars and opening them to people walking, biking, skating, rolling, etc. Streets through Volunteer Park, Seward, Interlaken, Frink, Coleman, and potentially other parks would be relatively easy to open up to people with just a few cones and signs. Portland and Minneapolis have both already implemented this idea.


Gordon's post about social distancing in parks

  • Walking on Non-Arterial Streets: Most Seattle sidewalks are 6 feet wide, making it very challenging, if not impossible, for people to maintain the recommended physical distancing. An easy solution would be to allow people to walk along non-arterial streets. (For how to fix the Seattle Municipal Code, click here.) While this would not solve the issue of crowding on arterial sidewalks, it would be a quick fix for the 2,400 miles of non-arterial streets.  

  • Relabeling Automatic Crosswalk Buttons: Right now, it’s impossible for people walking to know whether they need to press a button to get the walk signal. We should immediately relabel the buttons to indicate the signals that change automatically without the need to touch the button. 

Brookline beg button headline

Phase 2 — Adaptation

We need to be proactive in adapting our streets to prepare for the summer, when people will be eager to get outside and enjoy our sidewalks, trails, and parks. These ideas will take a little more time, outreach, and resources, but they are well worth the effort. 

  • Arterial Sidewalk Extensions: Sidewalks in our dense neighborhoods are often not wide enough to safely pass other people. Where possible, we should temporarily expand sidewalks by using cones or barricades. 

temporarily close lanes to widen sidewalks

  • Car-Free Recreational Routes / Stay Healthy Streets: There are many promising routes across the city to give people more space to recreate and travel. Rainier Valley Greenways Safe Streets has proposed giving people space on Lake Washington Blvd and Rainier Ave. We could create loops of streets, connections to parks, connections to places essential workers need to travel, or alternatives to overcrowded trails. As official public health recommendations relax, we should look into creating places where people can socialize at a distance, such as permanent Play Streets or pedestrian plazas. Cities around the world, from Bogota to Philadelphia, have begun to implement these ideas. Update: The city has agreed to roll out 15 miles of Stay Healthy Streets, and we are working on a proposal for even more. 

Dan Rather Philadelphia open street idea

  • Signals for People: Wherever possible, we should configure traffic signals to automatically give people the walk signal without them having to push a button (other than for vibration and sound feedback for people who are blind and/or deaf). Brookline, Massachusetts and other cities are doing this.

walk light

  • Reduce Speeding: The city should continue to move ahead quickly with its plan to reduce speed limits and install radar speed signs to abate the dangerous speeding we are seeing on our streets right now, in order to prevent collisions and allow people to walk and bike safely. 

Portland police finding speeding

Phase 3 — A Green and Just Rebound

What comes next? What comes after the worst pandemic and possibly the worst economic crisis in modern times? With Seattle as an early pandemic epicenter, can we lead the way for a different future— by rebounding as a greener, more equitable, and thriving city? It won’t be easy, but we should start by implementing a Green New Deal at every level of government to transform our streets and our economy. Just in Seattle, there are billions of dollars worth of needed walking, biking, and transit projects that would create more good-paying green jobs than highway megaprojects.

jobs created by type of transportation project

What’s your idea? 

Would any of these ideas help make your life better? Or do you have a suggestion for a Park Street For People or a Car-Free Recreational Route that isn’t on our map yet (see an image preview below)?

Let us know in this short survey!