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Pandemic-Era Traffic Calming Project 'Healthy Streets' Winds Down

An orange barrel blocks a street. A sign against it reads: "Local Traffic Only."
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
One of a diminishing number of "Healthy Streets" on Avenue G in Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood. The city is slowly winding down the program.

A City of Austin program to reduce traffic on certain streets so people could walk, bike and run safely is slowly vanishing as the pandemic eases in the Austin area. City Council created the Healthy Streets Initiative early in the pandemic to establish more outdoor space for physical activity when gyms were closed and trails were crowded.

The city described the program as "soft closures," typically in low-traffic areas. Sometimes traffic barriers would be set up on alternating sides of the street, forcing vehicles to drive more slowly as they zigzagged back and forth. In other cases, barricades with signs that read "Road Closed Local Traffic Only" were placed at intersections. On other streets, entire lanes were closed to cars and trucks.

Now that traffic volumes are returning, viral transmission rates are lowering and Austin transportation staff are resuming their normal pre-pandemic workloads, the Healthy Streets program has become more difficult to operate.

"In recognition of the staff bandwidth, as well as the changing conditions as the stages of risk change, we've been winding down the segments, including several that folks, I think, were sad to see go," Austin's Active Transportation Manager Laura Dierenfield said.

Austin is now at stage 3 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. Public health officials have said the city could move to stage 2 as soon as this week.

At its height, the Healthy Streets Initiative covered 12 miles along 26 segments of road.

Now, it's down to four locations totaling 3.4 miles.

  • Comal Street from Willow Street to Nash Hernandez Sr. Road
  • Avenue G from 38th Street to 56th Street
  • South Third Street from Jewell Street to Oak Crest Avenue
  • Bouldin Avenue from Barton Springs Road to Jewell Street

Those segments are expected to stay in place through September, according to an internal city memo. The city is working on establishing a more permanent Healthy Streets program over the next 12 to 18 months with 10 pilot locations, Dierenfield said.

Meanwhile, a trail pilot inspired by the Healthy Streets Initiative is underway along West 31st Street and Shoal Creek Boulevard. City staff are borrowing some of the lessons learned during the program to evaluate a neighborhood bikeway project in the Cherrywood neighborhood on Wilshire Boulevard, Cherrywood Road and Schieffer Avenue.

Similar "slow streets" programs became popular nationwide during the pandemic. Cities including Denver, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Kansas City launched such initiatives as they realized social distancing and lockdown orders were leaving people with fewer options for physical activity at a time when they needed it most.

Got a tip? Email Nathan Bernier at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.

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