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Cities became more pedestrian-friendly during the pandemic. Many aren't going back

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Many cities experimented with closing some roads to car traffic early in the pandemic for outdoor dining or socially distanced strolls. In Washington, D.C., Jacob Fenston from member station WAMU takes a look at the lasting effects of such measures.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: A few dozen people are gathered in Rock Creek Park, a big tract of forest in the middle of D.C. It's cold and windy.

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: But it's a great day for a beach party.

FENSTON: They're here to celebrate the permanent closure to cars of the main roadway through the park. It's called Beach Drive, hence the beach party. Diane Bolton biked here with her 8-year-old son.

DIANE BOLTON: I cannot tell you how much stress has been lifted, not having to worry about the car that's going to pass me unsafely.

FENSTON: For decades, Beach Drive was a busy commuter thoroughfare into downtown D.C. When the pandemic hit, traffic dried up and the National Park Service closed nearly three miles of the road to cars. Julia Washburn is superintendent of the park.

JULIA WASHBURN: We kept thinking that it would be, you know, three months, six months - OK, a year.

FENSTON: According to one Cornell study, more than 150 municipalities in the country closed some streets to motor vehicles during the pandemic. Ninety-four percent of those ended after just six months. But some were too popular to change back easily. In D.C., park officials backed off after an onslaught of angry comments. In San Francisco, a similar story played out when the city temporarily closed a road in Golden Gate Park. Roller skater David Miles Jr., who's known as San Francisco's godfather of skate, says people loved it.

DAVID MILES JR: You got to enjoy, I mean, a beautiful day. Here it is, 75 degrees outside. The sun is shining, no fog. The park is closed to cars every day. You start making that a habit.

FENSTON: Since the early '80s, Miles has been fighting to close the park's JFK Drive to cars and open it to skaters, bikers and people on foot. The issue went before San Francisco voters earlier this month with dueling ballot measures. The proposition to keep cars out won by 25 percentage points.

MILES: I think it is the happiest day I've ever experienced in San Francisco.

FENSTON: Of course, not everyone felt that way. Some disability rights advocates say the closure makes it harder for them to get to some parts of the park. Howard Chabner, who gets around in a power wheelchair, says most seniors and people with disabilities oppose the car-free configuration.

HOWARD CHABNER: Everyone knows there's a strong anti-car movement. It's anti-car, but it's also anti-people who rely on cars.

FENSTON: Elsewhere, in more car-dependent cities, temporary road closures didn't have the same groundswell of support, but they may have made residents more open to future changes.

CAROL COLETTA: Most of us only know what we know.

FENSTON: Carol Coletta is president of the nonprofit Memphis River Parks Partnership. She says a short-lived experiment closing the city's Riverside Drive helped people imagine something different.

COLETTA: Once you see it, then you go, well, wait, that's not impossible for us to do.

FENSTON: In D.C., Superintendent Julia Washburn says the change to a car-free road likely would never have happened if not for the pandemic. But she also points to a more gradual cultural shift. The last time the Park Service considered limiting car access was nearly 20 years ago. We were more of a car culture then, Washburn says.

WASHBURN: There was just strong - like, the city didn't want us to do it. There was just strong opposition, and so we didn't.

FENSTON: But while that car culture may not have quite such a strong hold now, Washburn says she's not closing any other roads in the park. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK CREEK PARK")

THE BLACKBYRDS: (Singing) Doing it in the park, doing it after dark, oh, yeah. Rock Creek Park, oh, yeah. Rock Creek Park. Doing it in the park, doing it after dark, oh, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Fenston
Jacob Fenston is WAMU’s environment reporter. In prior roles at WAMU, he was the founding producer of The Big Listen, interim managing producer of Metro Connection, and a news editor. His work has appeared on many national programs and has been recognized by regional and national awards. More importantly, his reporting has taken him and his microphone deep into muddy banks of the Anacostia River, into an enormous sewage tunnel, and hunting rats in infested alleys. His best story ever (as determined by himself) did not win any awards, even though it required recording audio while riding a bicycle the wrong way down the busy streets of Oakland, Calif.