An Open Letter to Mayors of the World

A message for mayors

Rob Toftness is a founding member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby. He would like Denverites to reconsider using our street space for more than personal automobiles. Follow him on Twitter at @nosquish 

Hello there, mayors of the world. 

We have to have a talk. We have to talk about open streets.

Some of you have been resisting this idea, to our collective exasperation. We have cities all across the United States that have been built for the comfort of drivers. You can see this any time you go outside and try to cross an intersection.

How is it fair to have 40-, 60-, or 80-feet of right-of-way sitting virtually empty? How is that fair when we are asking people to keep at least six feet of distance from each other while their only option is narrow sidewalks or bike lanes to get around safely?

We are faced with a pandemic. People are doing their best to stay home and stay safe but we do need to get outside. We need to access essential items. We need to get some fresh air and exercise. It’s hard to do that when crammed onto a six-foot-wide sidewalk. Just stand outside for any length of time and watch. Watch a family with a stroller try to get by, a jogger, people bringing their groceries home, essential workers doing their business.

Our roads shouldn’t be clogged with huge metal boxes carrying one or two passengers. Our roads should be filled with people! It’s time to open up the streets and let people fan out, to give us a bit of room.

Cars should be guests in the city. Drivers should be wary of cyclists and pedestrians. They should be careful and they should be going very slowly all the time.

Drivers have a responsibility to be safe. They’re the ones that are in multi-thousand pound vehicles with hundreds of horsepower available at the push of a pedal. The other side of that equation is a pedestrian with no metal cage, without any airbags to protect them.

Is it fair to allocate all this space to machines that are killing people at an increasingly alarming rate, particularly in the middle of this crisis? Is it fair to tell people that we still have to cram onto sidewalks? It isn’t. 

So, mayors, is there space that people can be using right now to stay safe? 

Leaders here in Denver recently decided to close a few streets to all but local motor vehicle traffic and, in turn, open them up for people. Sixteenth Avenue, affectionately referred to as the “bike boulevard” or “bike highway,” is 40+ feet wide. There is plenty of space for people to be on that street and to be separated and safe. It’s popular any time of the year but right now, thanks to Mayor Hancock, cars are guests. It’s filled with people on roller skates, skateboards, bikes, people running, walking, letting their dogs get out for a bit.

Mayors of the world, are you resisting this in your city? Are you worried about vehicle traffic? Are you worried about throughput? That’s archaic. It’s backwards and it’s wrong. Are you worried that opening streets would entice people to congregate? Well, here’s what’s happening in Denver: there are a lot of folks on these open streets but it’s nothing like the shoulder-to-shoulder passing on our narrow park sidewalks. Everyone gives everyone else appropriate distance. People are even wearing masks! 

Denver has thousands of miles of road. So far, we’ve closed down about 13 of those, mostly in parks. It’s not enough but at least it’s something. While we are all worried and stuck inside, now is the time to sit back and shift the way we think about who deserves to use our roads. We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. Our world has been put on pause, and it’s time to think about how we can do things differently. 

Open up the streets to people. It’s really that simple. There are plenty of options for drivers who need to get around. Their route doesn’t need to be an absolutely straight line. They’ve had that privilege for a hundred years. Now is the time to make it clear that the streets are for people.

We need to open up more streets and we need to make it permanent. We cannot go back to the status quo of mindless car supremacy. If you ask people when this is all said and done, when we come out on the other side, I’d wager they’ll be happy we rededicated streets for people. And they’ll be disappointed if that just disappears.

Mayors of the world, open up your streets to people. It’s that simple. 



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