Workers at the Boston Transportation Department have begun inventorying city-owned traffic cones and barrels as they ready for a coronavirus-related effort to claim parts of some city roads for expanded sidewalks to allow for greater social distancing among pedestrians - including patrons at restaurants that would be forced to reduce their indoor seating once the governor gives them the OK to re-open their dining areas - a BTD official told city councilors today.
At a hearing called by Councilors Michelle Wu (at large) and Liz Breadon (Allston/Brighton), Vineet Gupta, BTD's director of planning, said officials are still looking at exactly which roads could have a parking lane taken - or moved into a travel lane - to make room for pedestrians, as numerous cities around the world - and neighboring Brookline - have done as people get out and about on foot and travel lanes remain largely unused.
Officials are also looking at limiting traffic on smaller side streets and creating "pop up" bike lanes and bus lanes, at least for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
He said work to temporarily expand sidewalks should begin by the end of the month, with more and more expanded walkways added over the next few months. He added that if the city doesn't have enough cones and barrels to delineate the new spaces to keep pedestrians safe, it would look for local general contractors to borrow or rent them from.
Jacob Wessel, the city's public realm director, said possible candidates for wider walking areas would include Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, Washington Street in Dorchester's Codman Square and Meridian Street in East Boston. The three streets are prime candidates for "an open-curb approach" because they are all two-way streets with narrow sidewalks, which makes pedestrian social distancing difficult, especially as more people get out as temperatures rise.
Wessel said the city is also looking at even more aggressive "shared/slow streets," on narrower roads, such as Harold Street north of Franklin Park. He said Boston would be unable to do this on as many roads as some other cities because much of Boston is not built on a grid, which would raise public-safety and public-transit issues.
He added the city is also looking at "pop up" bike lanes, in such areas as Commonwealth Avenue between Kenmore Square and the BU Bridge, Malcolm X Boulevard and Columbus Avenue. Among those who might benefit: At-large Councilor Mike Flaherty, who said he is now bicycling regularly.
Gupta and Wessel said one of the main areas they're focusing on is ensuring that healthcare workers and other essential workers can easily get to their jobs even as restrictions apply. Bike lanes are a key part of that because many healthcare workers have enthusiastically taken to BlueBikes, to the point that a BlueBike station outside Mass. General is now the busiest in the city, Gupta said, adding BlueBike stations around the Longwood Medical Area have also seen increased usage.
The two, and Jared Johnson, CEO of Transit Matters, said healthcare workers are also more likely to rely on buses than trains to get to work. Johnson said train ridership has cratered over the past couple of months - commuter rail now carries only about 1% of the people it used to. While bus ridership is down, it hasn't fallen quite as far as trains, he said - bus ridership is now 22 to 33% of what it used to be. Mayor Walsh said yesterday he is hoping to work with the T to expand capacity on certain bus lanes that normally are heavily crowded, such as in South Boston.
Wessel said that along with new possible bus lanes, the city is looking at extending the length of bus stops - and even painting markers on the sidewalk so that passengers can know how to space themselves out as they wait for a bus.
The hearing opened with a presentation by Jeff Speck, an urban planner who lives in Brookline, who said it's urgent for Boston to move ahead with such plans as fast as possible because coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time.
"We are facing an immediate spatial crisis that demands an immediate spatial response," he said.
City Councilor Ed Flynn (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Downtown) said that in addition to giving pedestrians and bicyclists more room, the city needs to do something about drivers, whom he said have used the reduction in traffic to turn local streets into drag-racing speedways. He suggested reducing the current citywide speed limit of 25 to 20 or even 15 m.p.h.