Ruta Smith

Charleston leaders need to consider how our public spaces look in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Fundamental changes present opportunities we can’t waste, and rethinking how we use our city streets should be near the top of the list.

Over the course of Charleston’s 350 years, cars have only come to dominate the landscape in the past century. The city’s first speed limits prohibited safe passage “faster than a moderate trot,” according to Charleston Public Library historian Nic Butler. Eventually in the early 20th century, the state began regulating automobiles, with the city following soon after in 1906.

“Horses and pedestrians had dominated Charleston’s streets since the beginning of the town, and the city continued to protect their safety in the early years of the 20th century,” Butler said in a recent episode of his Charleston Time Machine podcast. “As the months rolled by, however, the number of motor vehicles plying the streets of Charleston continued to increase.”

We haven’t looked back since then. But amid public health worries while we all stayed home, traffic on local streets dropped for a few peaceful weeks. In cities around the world, leaders seized the chance to return our public roads to slower, people-focused modes of transportation. In Oakland, 74 miles of streets have been permanently restricted to through traffic, with bike lane construction expedited in the coming months. In Seattle, 20 miles of roadways will be permanently closed to most traffic. Streets in historic Boston and its suburbs have also been returned to people in recent weeks.

Chances don’t come up often to “rebalance” the division of public space, as bike/pedestrian advocates for Charleston Moves have said in recent weeks.

“There’s this idea that, for motor vehicle space, ‘That’s for them in perpetuity.’ And it just doesn’t make sense right now,” said Katie Zimmerman, the group’s executive director. “So at least temporarily, we should be experimenting with how to take advantage.”

Proposals for partial closures, expanded sidewalks, outdoor dining and other uses along parts of King Street, St. Philip Street, Mary Murray Boulevard and even Avondale in West Ashley merit serious consideration by Charleston officials.

Most local initiatives have been grounded in helping people channel restless energy after weeks in isolation, to get out of the house while maintaining social distancing. But the long-term impacts could help urban and suburban communities become more resilient post-pandemic.

With gyms and other close-contact exercise facilities remaining high-risk as COVID-19 cases continue to pop up, Charleston’s public spaces are simply not adequate for outdoor recreation with social distancing. (Try keeping your distance along downtown sidewalks or the West Ashley Greenway.) Digging a little deeper with more workers expected to continue their jobs remotely in the coming months, fewer commuters should be on local roads. Therein lies more opportunity.

Other cities are taking action and experimenting now. Let’s join this movement. Charleston-area leaders owe it to residents to see what works to make the city safer, healthier and more resilient.

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