Washington’s state transportation department is launching a temporary program that will make some lower-speed highways available to open streets and commercial uses during the Covid-19 pandemic. This will allow some lanes to be reallocated for low-stress uses by people walking, biking, and rolling as well as commercial use by businesses such as outdoor dining and pop-up retail. The program has the backing of Governor Jay Inslee and several leaders of other departments related to public health and economic development as part of the phased statewide Safe Start Washington reopening process.

“This virus has hit people and businesses hard, and we need creative solutions to mitigate the virus while also resuming necessary economic activity. In most cities, a quarter of all its land is taken up by streets,” Governor Inslee said in a statement. “I applaud the agencies’ work to ensure this land has flexible uses that can improve health and safety, and jumpstart the economy.”

Under “Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Program,” the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will coordinate with cities and counties to determine if portions of state highways can qualify for the program and allow for reallocation of existing lanes to other purposes. That means cities and towns could remove parking lanes or regular traffic lanes to facilitate pop-up bike lanes and wider in-street sidewalks and shoulders for walking, running, or even queuing space near retailers like grocery stores and pharmacies. Businesses would also be eligible to use these repurposed lanes to accommodate outdoor cafe seating and dining, retail space, and other street vendors. Initial estimates by WSDOT suggest that there might be some 458 miles of state routes eligible for the program.

The state’s top health and commerce policymakers think that this program could be a boon in many communities to advance public health.

“Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health,” said Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman. “Providing this extra public space encourages people and families to get outdoors and participate in more physical activities, which is especially important today to help cope with the stress of COVID-19.”

“Opening up portions of roadways will help retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations,” said Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.”

The stated criteria limits the program to highways that have 35 mph speed limits or lower on “Main Street Highways”, though local jurisdictions might still be able to qualify if they successfully request reduced speeds of 35 mph. Local jurisdictions will also need to demonstrate that these reallocations will occur in populated areas where there is a “lack of space for physical distancing for walking, bicycling or other forms of active transportation.” Eligible highways generally need to be five or fewer lane, not inclusive of any parking lanes, though exceptions may be considered.

The bulk of Main Street Highways are located in the Central Puget Sound, particularly on highways like SR-99, SR-202, SR-516, SR-522, and SR-900. However, many others dot sections of cities and towns across the state. More sections of highways than shown on this draft map probably qualify for the program. (WSDOT)
The bulk of Main Street Highways are located in the Central Puget Sound, particularly on highways like SR-99, SR-202, SR-516, SR-522, and SR-900. However, many others dot sections of cities and towns across the state. More sections of highways than shown on this draft map probably qualify for the program. (WSDOT)

Lane reallocations could last up to 90 days, at least initially. WSDOT says that the time period could vary though as each lane reallocation will be negotiated with local jurisdictions.

The program guidelines specify four types of potential lane reallocations and associated conditions, if any:

  • “Partial highway lane reallocation – temporarily reallocates a portion of highway lanes to provide access and public space for active transportation, and retain a minimum of one lane for through vehicles in each direction.”
  • “Full highway lane reallocation – temporarily reallocates a full highway lane to provide access and public space for active transportation, and retain a minimum of one lane for through vehicles in each direction.”
  • “Complete highway reallocation – allows complete active transportation accessibility and removes vehicle traffic from a section of the entire roadway. Complete reallocations should be limited in duration, such as for weekend closures, and Saturday or Sunday partial or full day closures, and may require a signed detour route.”
  • “On-street parking removal – temporarily removes on street parking to provide access and public space for active transportation while retaining full highway movement.”

The program will come with monitoring and outreach components. Local jurisdictions will need to engage with local residents and businesses on any right-of-way changes and ascertain performance of the program. Weekly reports will need to be submitted to the state on any operational issues and effectiveness of lane reallocations. One benefit that WSDOT has suggested is that “[t]owns could use this reallocation to test and learn from changes they might want to consider implementing in the future.”

Local jurisdictions will need to develop specific traffic control plans for the duration of any lane reallocations to maintain safety, traffic, and appropriate road access. Special attention will need to be given to contingency plans for emergency access by fire, ambulatory, and police services. Communication with adjacent property owners for driveway access will also be critical to ensure that access is predictable and safe.

Washington is not the first state to pursue this type program and policy. In May, Governor Ned Lemont of Connecticut became the first statewide executive in the country to issue an order for state and local jurisdictions to ease the use of right-of-way for outdoor commercial activities. Then in June, Massachusetts rolled out a nimble program for shared streets and spaces. Cities across the country and even the Puget Sound region have been moving to open up streets for expanded walking, biking, and rolling opportunities as well as outdoor dining and retail uses, ranging from extended curb use to full street closures to traffic.

Naturally, many communities that lack their own fully controlled streets in denser and commercial areas have contacted the state for opportunities to emulate these type programs in their backyard.

“A number of communities across the state have already approached us about opening parking areas or lanes in their city’s commercial district for increased open space and business access,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. “We’re pleased to collaborate with them to find safe solutions that work for all users of the roadway.”

Some detractors of this type of program on state highways may question the validity of it since state highways have traditionally been funded by the gas tax. Under Washington’s 18th Amendment, gas tax money is supposed to fund design, acquisition, construction, maintenance, and operation of facilities that support “highway purposes”. But the definition of this is not so narrow as some car activists might like to pretend it is. The program passes constitutional muster.

In the next few weeks, Washingtonians can expect lane reallocations to begin happening across the state in an effort to support pandemic recovery in communities.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

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