Healthy Streets need more feet

Thursday, October 8, 2020 - 12:21pm

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Design courtesy of Shuchen Wei

Students returning to campus this fall may have noticed a new profusion of orange traffic barrels around Ann Arbor. Though they have nothing to do with road maintenance, the barrels can be seen along the sides of several of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, blocking vehicles from entering the outermost lanes. Judging by the general lack of cyclists and pedestrians using these lanes, however, it seems that many people have not investigated exactly what they are for.

The new car-free lanes are part of a City of Ann Arbor initiative called the Healthy Streets Program, which was launched on May 4, 2020, in an attempt to promote social distancing among people who would otherwise have been confined to city sidewalks. The program has reconfigured traffic on over 30 streets in Ann Arbor. Of particular note are the eight high-traffic streets (including Main, State and Packard streets) that have had entire lanes sectioned off for pedestrian traffic. 

These reconfigured lanes have been converted into two-way “streets” for cyclists and pedestrians, essentially as an extension of existing sidewalks. As a frequent runner and biker, I have found this new abundance of walkable, bikeable roadway to be very useful, and although it seems to be underutilized now, I believe there are plenty of ways in which the Ann Arbor community could benefit from making better use of the Healthy Streets Program.

Not only is it easier to maintain proper social distancing while walking or running along busy streets (which, in Ann Arbor, is very difficult to avoid doing), the new lanes allow me to run through normally crowded areas like downtown without being a nuisance to other pedestrians something that was hard to do even pre-pandemic.

I’ve also found Healthy Streets to be a vast improvement in terms of “bikeability.” Standard bicycle lanes are often very narrow and leave cyclists with no barrier against automobile traffic. The lanes reconfigured by Healthy Streets, however, are essentially mini-streets. With two lanes, there is much more space for cyclists to maneuver, and the barrels act as a deterrent to cars that might stray too close. In my experience, this has made for much safer and more enjoyable biking trips.

As much as I have made use of the Healthy Streets Program so far, I have been routinely surprised at how few other people I encounter using the converted lanes. Despite having run or biked on a reconfigured street several times a week since the start of the semester, I can still count with my fingers the number of other people I’ve passed.

My estimate of how many people are using Healthy Streets is based on purely anecdotal evidence, and understandably, people are traveling fewer places right now. Nonetheless, I feel that an exhortation to the people of Ann Arbor to take advantage of this program is in order: According to the City of nn Arbor website, the program is only in effect until Nov. 10, and whether or not these changes are permanent depends on you. Staff members from the city and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority have been monitoring the Healthy Streets since their launch in order to determine their effectiveness. One of the criteria used to determine whether any reconfigurations will become permanent is the volume of people using the converted lanes.

Even if you don’t have anywhere to go right now, I strongly suggest that you go for a walk (or bike or run) on a Healthy Street. You might find that the new road configuration improves your experience of downtown and other areas, as it did mine. If nothing else, you’ll be helping to make our city healthier and safer by driving a transition to car-free, people-focused roadways. In fact, Healthy Streets operates alongside the People Friendly Streets program, a more long-term Ann Arbor initiative launched in order to redesign roadways to promote carbon neutrality, economic development and personal safety.

The Healthy Streets Program was created to address an immediate problem: the COVID-19 pandemic. But if we provide the program with enough support, it will provide benefits much farther into the future than the pandemic will last and make our community improvements much more permanent than just a few orange barrels.

Evan Dempsey can be reached at evangd@umich.edu


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