Minneapolis this spring and summer placed restrictions on vehicular traffic on 16 miles of neighborhood streets to provide safer spaces for biking, walking and rolling. And people took advantage.
Activity on the city’s “Stay Healthy Streets” increased by 33% when compared with pre-pandemic levels. The significant jump in activity was the largest of five cities that instituted safe or closed streets programs as a result of COVID-19 and studied by the global transportation tracking company Inrix.
The findings outlined in the “Utilization of COVID-19 Street Programs in 5 U.S. Cities” report published Thursday looked at the effect such programs had in Oakland, New York, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.
Minneapolis’ increase was largely due to its recreational focus, said Bob Pishue, an Inrix transportation analyst. Use of protected streets and bike lanes was lower in New York and Washington since many of the “safe” streets were geared for commuters, and fewer commuters were going to work. In Manhattan, usage was just 43% of pre-COVID-19 levels, Inrix found.
In Minneapolis, the city created three loop routes, with one each in the northern, northeastern and southern part of the city. The routes, which generally took 25 to 35 minutes to bike and 1½ to 2 hours to walk, followed neighborhood streets and connected with parks and trails.
On some routes, such as on Humboldt Avenue in north Minneapolis, the city posted signs prohibiting through traffic to cut down on the number of vehicles on the streets, though they did remain open for residents. On Plymouth Avenue, for example, parking lanes were converted to walking space. Traffic calming measures were instituted along other routes.
The city’s “Stay Healthy Streets” implemented in April was independent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s move to close several miles of parkways to traffic and provide space for people to properly social distance while recreating. Matthew Dyrdahl, a city transportation planner and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said the park board’s move led the city to look at ways to do the same while providing alternatives to the busy parkway system and bring equity across the city.
“When the pandemic hit and the stay-at-home orders came down, we started realizing we needed to have a response for those who want to bike, walk or roll,” said Dyrdahl.
And city residents and even visitors apparently liked what they saw, Dyrdahl said. Activity on the 16 miles of restricted streets was higher than in other parts of the city from April through August compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to the Inrix study.
A majority of those who responded to a survey gave the changes a favorable review and some wished they would become permanent, Dyrdahl said.
The city suspended “Stay Healthy Streets” in September, but it could be a harbinger of things to come. In the meantime, Dyrdahl said the city is looking at modifying its bike boulevards and rebranding them as neighborhood greenways as a way dissuade vehicular traffic. It’s also partnering with Our Streets Minneapolis to promote biking and walking. That initiative that recently kicked off called “Healthy Trips, Healthy City” features new wayfinding signs and stickers on popular recreation routes that direct people to amenities such as libraries, restaurants and grocery stores and the length of time to get there by biking or walking.
As the city evaluates its next steps, one thing is sure, Dyrdahl said.
“People want improvements to bike-walk-roll,” he said.