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Some Pedestrian-Friendly Street Changes May Stay After The Pandemic Ends

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the pandemic struck, cities across the country moved quickly to help struggling restaurants. They bypassed regulations and closed off streets for outdoor dining. Now, even though they've lifted some indoor dining restrictions, some cities are moving to repurpose their streets permanently to accommodate people who have become accustomed to more car-free spaces. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing in the middle of Clark Street in the River North area of downtown Chicago. And in normal times, it would be packed with cars, trucks and buses in three lanes of traffic going one way south, plus lanes on each curb for parking, valet stands, Ubers, cabs and delivery trucks. But right now, there's none of that - no traffic at all - because for much of the pandemic, the city has closed off several blocks of Clark Street here, allowing restaurants to safely spread out tables and serve diners outdoor.

ALYSSA WATKINS: I think it's kind of nice.

SCHAPER: Twenty-nine-year-old Chicagoan Alyssa Watkins is eating lunch outside in a place where there's usually loud traffic.

WATKINS: It's just nicer to not hear all the noise, to have more room for people to walk around on the streets.

SCHAPER: At another table in the street a good 10 feet away, 30-year-old Christina Taylor hopes the city keeps it closed.

CHRISTINA TAYLOR: I don't have a car, so I don't know how frustrating it is for people who drive when the streets are shut off.

SCHAPER: But not everyone is on board.

CAMILE STAFFORD: Down here, out here, it does make it a bit inconvenient when you close these streets like this.

SCHAPER: That's 30-year-old Camile Stafford, who worries about gridlock.

STAFFORD: Now it's like, oh, man, this street's blocked off. Oh, man, this street's blocked off. You know, it kind of - it can get irritating and maybe even deter people from coming down here.

SCHAPER: But the city's expanding what it calls the Chicago Alfresco Program anyway, closing off even more streets and not just for outdoor dining. Some busy streets now have wider walkways and bike lanes. Audrey Wennink of the Chicago non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council says it's part of the Complete Streets concept.

AUDREY WENNINK: Complete Streets are streets that are designed for everybody of every mode, so biking, walking, transit and cars.

SCHAPER: At a busy downtown Chicago intersection, Wennink says this street now has fewer lanes for cars, with one dedicated to buses only and another as a separated bike lane.

WENNINK: And there are plastic barriers that extend to the curb. So it makes a shorter crossing distance for pedestrians.

SCHAPER: Yes, it will take longer for people to drive through those redesigned streets, but Wennink says there's an important payoff.

WENNINK: Whenever you narrow streets or add bike lanes, you cause cars to drive slower and more carefully. And that has improved safety for everyone.

SCHAPER: With Americans walking more since the pandemic began, there's been a sharp increase in pedestrian fatalities, leading to an increased urgency in many cities to recreate streets as shared spaces instead of solely being focused on cars. Beth Osborne is with the nonprofit advocacy group Smart Growth America.

BETH OSBORNE: We had pretended that humans outside of a car didn't exist or were disposable and designed our roadways for only one user - those who had a big metal contraption around them.

SCHAPER: Osborne says the pandemic has prompted cities from Oakland and Seattle to Louisville and Burlington, Vt., to experiment with new street uses. Some include outdoor dining and food truck plazas. Others have displays of artwork or urban playgrounds. While some will be temporary, others may remain long after the pandemic ends.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSPO'S "BRASILIA E LUISA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.