New Washington State Initiative Opens Some Low-Speed State Roadways to Healthy Uses

Submitted by Washington State Department of Transportation

With the arrival of summer and more counties relaxing restrictions under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, the Washington state departments of Health, Commerce and Transportation have joined together to provide more access to public roadways in support of active, healthy communities and business recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This virus has hit people and businesses hard, and we need creative solutions to mitigate the virus while also resuming necessary economic activity. In most cities, a quarter of all its land is taken up by streets,” Inslee said. “I applaud the agencies’ work to ensure this land has flexible uses that can improve health and safety, and jumpstart the economy.”

The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program allows temporary lane reallocations on some state roadways to allow walkers and cyclists more space to maintain physical distance, and to provide greater access to businesses along “main street” highways. This temporary change to some traffic lanes could let towns increase space for people walking or biking, or create outdoor seating for restaurants and sales areas for retailers, while maintaining physical distance to help reduce exposure to the virus.

“Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “Providing this extra public space encourages people and families to get outdoors and participate in more physical activities, which is especially important today to help cope with the stress of COVID-19.”

“Opening up portions of roadways will help retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations,” said Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown. “These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.”

“A number of communities across the state have already approached us about opening parking areas or lanes in their city’s commercial district for increased open space and business access,” said Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar. “We’re pleased to collaborate with them to find safe solutions that work for all users of the roadway.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation will work with requesting cities and counties to evaluate roadway segments that meet criteria for lane reallocation that is safe for all users. Eligible state highway locations will be on roadways with 35 mph speed limits or lower and within population centers with demonstrated lack of space for physical distancing for walking, bicycling or other forms of active transportation. The duration of temporary lane reallocations will be for up to 90 days, but could vary depending on the agreement with each city.

WSDOT asks interested local jurisdictions to ensure that they’ve communicated with the people and businesses affected by the changes and that they report on how the roadway changes work. Towns could use this reallocation to test and learn from changes they might want to consider implementing in the future.

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