While many towns and cities are grappling with how to provide more space for people using sidewalks in this age of social distancing, one community has taken a step that appears to be working.
Two weeks ago, Brookline cordoned off some parking lanes along four of the town's busiest streets in order to make more room for pedestrians and cyclists to roam while remaining a safe distance from others. Town officials now say they've had no complaints about the move and say it's been very successful.
Brookline Selectboard member Raul Fernandez said the town targeted streets that connect major shopping areas and medical facilities, like Longwood Avenue. Other roads where you'll see the widened sidewalks are along Harvard Street, Brookline Avenue and Beacon Street.
To accommodate the businesses that are still open — especially restaurants — 15-minute temporary take out/delivery spaces have been created in some sections of those parking lanes.
The idea was first raised in mid-March. Fernandez said many residents — especially essential workers — were complaining about the lack of space to walk and bike in the town.
With diminished car traffic, there isn't as much demand for parking spaces, Fernandez said. He added that the Selectboard decided to expand the walking space especially for those who Fernandez called essential pedestrians and cyclists — “folks that we're asking to work right now, to keep things like grocery stores up and running, folks that are first responders, people who are members of the medical community, to make sure they have the requisite distance.”
Amanda Zimmerman, who works at Harvard Medical School, was one of the first residents to contact the Brookline Transportation Board about the problem she was having navigating Harvard Street.
“I realized that in order to get to any of the grocery stores or restaurants that we were picking up food from, it was next to impossible to get enough distance between myself and other people on the sidewalks,” she said.
Zimmerman said the new widened sidewalks work for her.
“Whenever I'm walking close to someone else, I tend to step into the street blockaded lane. There's just a set of cones that demarcates that this is an area for pedestrians and cyclists and usually a sign, and I feel that that is a much more protected space for me to avoid other pedestrians,” she said.
Zimmerman said she thinks the move has been successful, and added that she'd like to see it expanded to other side streets in the town.
Brookline so far is the only Greater Boston municipality that has closed parking lanes for this purpose. The idea was raised to the Cambridge City Council but not implemented, and currently even Memorial Drive remains open to vehicle traffic.
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has called for a hearing in the next couple of weeks to begin to address the issue of widening sidewalks in the city. Wu also expressed concern that more walking space along streets could lead to more car accidents with pedestrians, and said that any plans to widen sidewalks should include strategies to slow traffic.
Jonathan Berk, a South End resident and researcher with the grass roots crowd-funding company Patronicity, said there is an urgent need to address the issue in Boston.
“We don't have enough open space in Boston. I was in the Public Garden yesterday and the Esplanade yesterday; it's packed, it's tough to get space around people,” he said. Berk said he believes there's plenty of room on side streets to make more space, which will require careful planning.
Ultimately, closing a couple of streets or creating a few widened sidewalks isn't going to be enough, said Berk, who is a former Brookline resident.
“It's not just going to be these one or two ad hoc closed streets," Berk said, "but I think it needs to be more of a broader plan of action.”
Berk said he's concerned that so far, he hasn't seen anyone begin that discussion. But as summer comes, the need for increased space will grow, and Brookline may serve as an example.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct Jonathan Berk's place of residence. He currently resides in the South End, and formerly lived in Brookline.