“It took us a while to get to a place that was constructive,” Logan says. “I know that there’s value in venting, there’s a catharsis to tell somebody, ‘You messed up.’”
At the end of May, Oakland began offering a new phase of Slow Streets called Essential Places with the aim of addressing many of these inequities. Rather than close down entire streets, the city set up quick barricades using traffic cones and signs to narrow crosswalks in front of locations like shopping centres and clinics, allowing pedestrians to reach them more easily. East Oakland resident John Jones III, director of the non-profit Just Cities, who had been critical of the program’s rollout, called this an example of positive change “that’s really going to reduce harm,” in an interview with local outlet Oaklandside in November.
The city never actually reached its intended goal of closing 120 kilometres of roads, settling for around 34 kilometres by the summer of 2020 and deciding against going further based on the feedback it received. For streets that continued to divert all non-essential traffic, officials worked with a local artist to redesign signage, which now feature a scraper bike—a brightly-modified bicycle created by local youth of colour—as well as an outline of two young Black girls playing.
“I think it’s meaningful to use culturally competent way-finding,” says Logan. “So that you are reflecting back to the community that we’re talking about you.”
Slow Streets continued to iterate throughout 2020. In June, Oakland rolled out an initiative called Flex Streets to help businesses and restaurants apply for and build parklets in front of their storefronts, allowing for small open spaces to appear throughout the city. The previously cumbersome process was highly bureaucratic and often slowed down by other business owners’ complaints. Now, says Logan, there’s an easy template that only needs review by a single official, saving time and money. The number of parklets in Oakland has skyrocketed from four to over 100.
Outside advocates think that Slow Streets’ steps and missteps have both been beneficial. “It’s difficult for government to innovate,” says Darnell Grisby, executive director of TransForm, which pushes for transit and walkability improvements throughout California. “It’d be nice if the public sector was allowed to try and fail the way that tech companies do. I think the taxpayer would get a lot more out of it.”
Overall, Oakland has spent a trim $160,000 on material costs for both Slow Streets and Essential Places, and was able to use many shutdown roads for Covid-19 testing sites and vaccinations over the course of the year.
Grisby, who moved to the city from Washington D.C. in November, says he’s been pleased with Oakland’s openness to dialogue. He hopes that this past year’s trials have helped create an appetite for progressive changes to infrastructure and transportation.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and the pandemic created a lot of necessities,” he says. “It reminded us the importance of urban spaces and our time together as human beings. Sometimes we’ll need support from one another, and what that looks like collectively happens to be called government.”
The future of Slow Streets is “still a little bit TBD,” says Russo. But administrators intend to continue many of the initiatives and expand their toolkit, in particular now that vaccination has made it easier for large groups to gather. For instance, East Oakland merchants can call neighbours and propose to close down a street for a cookout with less hassle, says Logan. “We’ve included a way for the city to say ‘Yes,’ rather than, ‘I don’t understand this.’”
Prior to the pandemic, such ideas would have met with more resistance, he adds. Asking the city to shut down a tenth of its streets to through traffic would have likely been a non-starter, but people now have a better understanding of the value of such renovations.
“The lasting impact I’m hoping to have is that residents and merchants stop being afraid of change,” Logan says. “I want to challenge people’s understanding of the ways they use space, and show they can benefit from flexibility and innovation.”
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