Transportation planning staff are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. How are these challenges being addressed, and what lessons can we use in the coming weeks and months?
Recently, Remix hosted a discussion with planners from three early COVID hot spots — New Orleans, Seattle, and Oakland. The participants were:
These three DOTs discussed how they’ve been addressing the challenges of pandemic planning for the past couple months. A few central themes emerged during the session.
In March, the mayor of New Orleans formed a COVID-19 coordinating committee for pandemic planning. The group has 14 sub-committees, including a Transportation planning subcommittee chaired by the MOT. Dan explained this has provided excellent structure for New Orleans. Twice-weekly meetings give agencies a forum to air concerns and make requests, such as asking for more PPE for employees.
Manuel emphasized, “It’s important to prioritize equity in fast-moving COVID-19 responses.” Oakland’s Slow Streets program, which creates space for social distancing while walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking, is very popular with white, higher-income residents. However, many POC and low-income residents complained that the program didn’t address their needs and was tone-deaf to the community’s actual problems. The city adopted “Slow Streets: Essential Places” in response to this feedback. With the new program, a mix of permanent and temporary signage, daylighting, and pedestrian signals help to enable safe access to essential services like grocery stores and COVID-19 test sites.
All the transportation planners who presented have been working hard to communicate with their communities and respond to feedback. Manuel’s office uses online surveys and community forums to discover how different segments of the population respond to their efforts. Heather attends online meetings to engage with constituents and colleagues every day from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm. Her Seattle office also uses virtual press conferences, social media, A-frame and yard signs, and blog posts to disseminate information.
Transportation and environmental concerns go hand-in-hand. This is especially true during pandemic planning. The closing of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 created a transportation emergency. The bridge had to be closed due to the rapid expansion of cracks that the city had been monitoring. Heather said, “We’ve identified some really significant race, environmental, and social justice impacts of the closure of the bridge.” She explained how the situation exacerbated an environmental issue for the mostly BIPOC communities that were already dealing with air pollution near the remaining bridges to the south. She referenced the usefulness of the best practiced outlined in the Black Space Manifesto. Now the city is engaged in a discussion about repair versus replacement of the bridge.
One theme that ran through all the presentations was flexibility and adaptation. Transportation planning during a pandemic is a brand-new challenge for American cities. All the planners who presented at the webinar had to adapt on the fly:
Staying flexible has allowed these planners to respond to feedback and serve their communities well during both shelter-in-place and recovery planning periods.
This is a time of rapid change, and it can be overwhelming to address a growing list of new needs. Prioritization is critical to deliver on the greatest needs. Remix surveyed the webinar participants, the majority of whom are Transportation Planners, to better understand their top priorities in recovery planning. Results included: active/slow streets, bike infrastructure projects, virtual public engagement, and streateries. It’s clear that pandemic planning will continue to focus on these issues in the coming months.
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