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Tab Combs: Shifting Streets, Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic

September 17, 2020
Center for Urban and Regional Studies
Headshot of Tab Combs outdoors.

Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.

Tab Combs is a research associate in UNC-Chapel Hill‘s department of city and regional planning. She is a scholar of transportation planning and policy with a focus on expanding our knowledge of travel behavior and vehicle use in order to support efforts of decision-makers to create more sustainable, healthy, socially just communities. Here Combs is interviewed by CURS Interim Director Nichola Lowe about evolving views about streets and public spaces and about her growing Shifting Streets Dataset which tracks global responses to changing demands on public space during the pandemic.

Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Tab Combs: Shifting Streets

Nichola Lowe: Can you tell me a bit about how this changing demand on our street is then changing the broader urban landscape and urban mobility options?

Tab Combs: So, this a really widespread phenomenon. I mean, COVID-19 is a global crisis, and so cities around the world are seeing this change in the way their residents need to use public space…particularly streets. And cities are responding in a wide variety of ways. Early on it was, this is a crisis – we have to restrict mobility, people must stay home and if they go out, they must stay distanced. And so, we saw a lot of restrictions to mobility. And then, once we sleep…okay, let’s catch our breath. We’ve cut down on transit. We’ve blocked access to parks and recreational facilities. We’ve done other things to restrict mobility, but people still need to get around.

So, what’s a low-hanging fruit that we can tackle to enable that? And so, cities look for things like automating walk signals and changing speed limits and changing enforcement – to make streets a bit more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. And then we started seeing, maybe three weeks or a month into the global pandemic, more physical changes to street layouts.

Nichola Lowe: So, are some of these actions that are being taken…are they building on efforts that pre-existed? Or has COVID really transformed or mobilized actions that would not have happened otherwise?

Tab Combs: It’s a little bit of both. We’ve seen a lot of cities that are taking this time to fast track or accelerate plans that they already had…that had just had been maybe waiting for a rainy day or just hadn’t gotten around to…implementing a bike lane or a sidewalk…that are suddenly seeing an urgent need to do it. And so, a lot of fast-tracked actions, a lot of cities, are implementing actions that are maybe expansions of pre-existing programs. We see that in a lot of places that have had open streets events on a regular basis that are now doing those streets maybe on a daily basis where before it used to be maybe one week in the month. But then there are other places that are experimenting with entirely new ideas that had never been part of the discussion, part of the plans that they had been working towards in the past. So, it’s definitely a mix of both.

Nichola Lowe: So you’re a transportation planner and I know that you have been conducting research on this topic starting fairly early on with this pandemic, and I’m hoping you can just share a bit about what you’ve been documenting, and what are some of the major findings and how have those shifted from the early days of the pandemic, which seemed many months ago even though this is a short period of time really. What’s different today than, say, back in March?

Tab Combs: Yeah, so March was about a decade ago I think (laughter)…and when I started collecting data on how cities were responding, I did it because I had heard something about an open streets event in Philadelphia, and it’s a regular summer event that…they had moved the start date earlier in response to the pandemic. And the recognition that people would need places to go out and exercise. And I wanted a little bit more information about that and so I started looking into it, and I put out some calls on social media. And I sent out some emails asking for information and started getting in information from a range of sources, of cities around the world that were moving in the same direction almost simultaneously.

And it occurred to me that this is not just…I was looking initially because I thought, I wonder if there’s something that Chapel Hill can do? I wonder if there’s a precedent or an example of a city out there already? And so, my initial interest was pretty selfish but then when I realized this is a thing…this is a global phenomenon that really needs to be documented, because this may shape transportation planning in the future in pretty dramatic ways. So, I devoted a bit more of my time to tracking down these changes through a variety of methods. And it’s a living database that I’m developing and so the lessons that we’re learning are evolving on a week-to-week basis.

But some things that I think that were pretty evident early is that there’s a huge demand around the world for cities to do something. Cities are under a lot of pressure to do something early on. Some of those actions seemed a bit reactionary – you know, the restricting mobility definitely seemed reactionary. I don’t fault cities for that because this is a global crisis. No one knows how they’re going to respond in a crisis and you have to act fast.

And then, as I mentioned earlier, we started seeing some more supportive or enabling actions like the removal of the need to press a button to cross the streets. You don’t have to press what we call the “beg button” anymore in a lot of cities…easy things to do…and then we saw this shift towards…we take a breath, we’re like “okay, what can we really do, what are some meaningful changes that cities can enable” and we started seeing some stuff that I think we could initially classify as tactical urbanism, but sanctioned tactical urbanism. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s when you go and take traffic barrels or cones or bags of flour or chalk and, maybe overnight, change the way a street looks and functions.

But this was happening at the city level by city governments and this was really exciting…a really exciting development, because we move really slowly in transportation planning and particularly doing anything that involves putting in a bike lane, putting in a sidewalk, or any sort of walking and bicycling improvements take years of deliberation. There are usually no dedicated funding streams so even once you have a plan you might not be able to implement that plan for years if not decades, because there’s no funding. The public meeting process always takes a lot longer for pedestrian/bicycle facilities than it does for roadways.

There are facilities that are for motor vehicles and so overnight – we saw this literally overnight – we saw a shift in this paradigm towards city and state sanctioned tactical urbanism projects that was was mind-boggling to me. I mean, I think there are certainly costs and benefits to doing everything really quickly but it was a huge paradigm shift. And I think that that’s continued in a lot of places. Even in Chapel Hill, who only just opened up the side path on Franklin Street for walking and expanded dining space. You know, if you’re looking at things on a COVID scale, that took forever, but if you’re looking at this on a typical transportation planning scale, that was 10 years of effort compressed into about three-and-a-half months.

And so, we are really seeing cities move more quickly, and I think that the major takeaway from this…the lesson that I want to see if I’m correct moving forward with my hypothesis is that cities are becoming more willing to experiment with temporary interventions and we haven’t in the past. We’ve always had this philosophy that we need to make sure what we’re doing is right because if it’s not someone might get…I mean there’s a safety concern, a liability concern…if someone gets hurt because we implemented something hastily, then it’s sued or we could just have this on our conscience that we implemented something that wasn’t safe, that didn’t meet all of the engineering standards it needed to meet. An argument against that approach is we don’t have the engineering standards because no one doesn’t…it’s a chicken and egg problem…and so I’m seeing cities be willing to experiment with temporary infrastructure, temporary interventions. To me that has been a positive development because it means that we can study how something works and we can roll it back if it if it ends up not working.

So, I’m interested to see, as we move forward and we move into post-pandemic recovery, if cities are going to retain this willingness to experiment more and to be a little less rigid about what sorts of accepted tried-and-true interventions are eligible to be implemented. Or if we’re a bit more willing to go off the beaten path and look for more contact sensitive solutions.

Nichola Lowe: I’d love for you to just tell us a bit about the research that you’re doing and just share with us some of the numbers. So right now, how many cities have you documented and how many of those are in the United States?

Tab Combs: I’ve got a list of a little over 500…I think it’s 506…cities around the world that have taken action, to some sort of response to changing transportation demand because of COVID. Some cities have introduced whole suites of responses and some have only done a few and then there’s about 75 or 80 statewide or nationwide initiatives or responses to COVID as well. But if you’re looking at the city level, I think it’s 507 maybe. I don’t have the number on the top of my head…I would guess about a third of them are in the U.S. That doesn’t mean, though, that a third of the actions have taken place in the U.S. Most of my data…well, the vast majority of my data, is crowdsourced and so it is a function of my networks and my ability to google keywords in different languages, and so places in Asia are highly underrepresented in my data. Africa is as well. The U.S., Europe, particularly places where the common languages are either Romance or Germanic languages, or the places that I have a lot of…but I’d say about a third of them are in the U.S.

Nichola Lowe: What’s jumping out as the big surprises from this research so far?

Tab Combs: I didn’t expect to see that this would be such a global phenomenon. I mean, I knew the pandemic was global, but this response…we’re seeing similar actions in different countries around the world and that really did surprise me. I just didn’t expect the breadth of it. I also didn’t expect the interest that I’ve gotten in the data that I’ve put together. I’ve got people sending me tweets in multiple languages from all corners of the world. My inbox exploded early on in the pandemic with people who wanted to write stories about the way streets were changing…for the news media…and that definitely caught me off guard. You know, there’s always been a strong interest around the world in improving streets for walking and bicycling but the audience for that and the people, the number of people, and the kinds of people who are now adding to those calls for safer, more accessible facilities for walking and bicycling has really expanded with the behavioral changes that have come with the pandemic in general. And that, I think, has prompted a lot of interest. The first interview that I did about the data was in Car and Driver! You know…I’ve never even picked up an issue of Car and Driver, and to do an interview about walking and bicycling facilities with that outlet was surprising! I just didn’t expect that that audience would be interested. So, I think that’s one of the big shocks to me.

And then, as the pandemic has worn on, we’ve now had it…we’re not just in a pandemic crisis…where I think the world is recognizing that we’ve, for a long time, been in a crisis of systemic racism, particularly in the U.S. and COVID has exacerbated that. And a lot of this crisis has played out in the streets and so, I was surprised and I shouldn’t have been, but I was, with the depth of the connection between roadway design and systemic racism. And everything that’s happening in our streets right now from the change in demand based on or induced by COVID, to the violence that’s taking place…the systemic and structural racial violence taking place in the streets, to the protests in response to that that are taking place in the street. Those are all really really deeply, intricately linked and I think COVID has made a lot of us who haven’t really grasped that think a lot harder about the importance of not just our street designs, but the designs of our entire transportation systems and the way the way we design roads, the way we build them, the way we enforce who gets to use them and under what conditions. I think that has been a really striking, surprising realization for me through all of this data collection.

Nichola Lowe: That’s a question I had, is who benefits from these COVID-related street openings and are these actions equitable? If not, what do we need to do to change that, both in the way that we plan our cities but also around community engagement and some of the processes that ensure that people are contributing to these decisions? And in ways that are supportive of their needs, not just a select group of people.

Tab Combs: That’s a huge question and we don’t have enough data yet to say precisely where the benefits are accruing but, you know, I think we can at least say, no, it’s not equitable and it’s not that putting up temporary bike lanes or sidewalks isn’t inherently an inequitable thing, but our transportation system historically has not been equitable. It’s been used to entrench disparities…economic and racial disparities…and the power structures that are giving us these new changes to our roadways are the same ones that gave us the pre-pandemic inequities in our transportation and our land use patterns as well. The public has not been engaged well in any of these COVID-related changes, just like historically the public has not been engaged well in transportation planning decisions. It’s just something that frankly the field of transportation planning is really bad at and we know this. I think a lot of us recognize this and been working to find ways to improve it but we’ve not improved it during COVID. I did a sort of a straw poll of webinar attendees back in May of cities that had made changes to their streets based on COVID and we asked, has your city made a concerted effort to engage the public in deciding what action to take and it was less than 20 to 25 percent of respondents said yes. So, I mean, that’s a huge number of places that are sort of arbitrarily moving forward with things that haven’t been vetted by the public, but they have a profound impact on how we access opportunity in our cities and so it’s hard to believe that even though we don’t have the data on who’s using these new facilities, it’s hard to believe that the benefits are being distributed equitably.

Nichola Lowe: So if you were to recommend to people a more equitable approach to these kinds of decisions, what would you put on the list? What would you encourage cities to do in order to make sure that they are reflecting a broad set of needs? That they are making sure that they are supporting equitable mobility and not just catering to a subset of the population?

Tab Combs: You know, if you’d asked me that question about two months ago, maybe three months ago, I would have said just look at what’s in your plans and just do actions that are in alignment with the plans that you have already drawn up and have been vetted by the public and have been approved. Since then, I think we’ve had to come to grips with the fact that those plans probably weren’t drawn up equitably. Early on, I was like “just fast track the ideas that you already have” and now I think maybe that’s probably not the best approach. The approaches that do seem to be the most useful or the most fair are ones that don’t require enforcement for one thing…don’t require police to enforce them, don’t require community investment, because some communities obviously are going to have more resources than others. New York City has fallen into both of these traps where first they started out with a very grand scheme for tens of miles of protected bikeways…enclosed streets that were managed by police. And then when they realized that the police weren’t on board and the public wasn’t on board with that approach either, they said okay, fine…neighborhoods can do this themselves and then people have realized, well, we have the same problem and that some neighborhoods have the resources and others don’t.

I think those are two keys that cities need to be thinking about but the other ones, the big ones, are collect data. Understand who lives in your city. Who uses your streets and how, and if, you do a temporary action with temporary infrastructure, collect before and after data to understand…to have hard numbers on use. But the really big thing is, and this is a much more general critique of planning – particularly transportation planning – is look whose voices are being heard in the process. It can’t be the same people making the same decisions, and a lot of new voices are starting to emerge now with this debate. Early on, we heard a lot of talk about COVID is a great opportunity for us to reshape our streets and to get the kinds of streets we’ve always wanted. And then pretty quickly on social media, there was a pushback. Wait, wait…who is this “we” we’re talking about here and it became evident that the “we” was this ped bike advocacy community, which is very white, largely male and quite affluent and there’s a great deal of pushback from communities of color in lower income communities who are saying we’re the ones on the front line of this COVID epidemic. We’re the ones who are going out and risking our lives to make sure that the economy continues to function and we’re not getting these bike lanes, or these bike lanes aren’t helping us. George Floyd was murdered on a street with a bike lane, so let’s talk about what everybody needs. Let’s hear some more voices and I am really uncomfortable with the language of COVID as an opportunity for anything other than an opportunity for the planning profession to take a really hard look at who we are, what we look like, what we sound like and who we’re allowing to have power in the profession. Because I think that the disparities in COVID have really highlighted the bias in planning overall. I think we really pride ourselves on striving for equity, but then if you look at who has a seat at the table, it’s not equitable in a lot of cases, particularly in transportation planning. So, I think that that is my number one piece of advice to cities is who’s involved in the discussions about what you’re going to do.

(Podcast photo courtesy of Street Lab)

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