Pedestrian push buttons are the bain of walkers everywhere. You push it and wait for the walk signal. And wait. And wait. Many pedestrians assume the button is broken (or don’t know they need to push a button) and cross against the light. This unpleasant brainchild of car-first engineering is called the “beg” button for good reason: people in cars pass freely, while those on foot must beg for the privilege of crossing the road.
As we all work to stay infection-free during the coronavirus pandemic, beg buttons have become a new threat. It’s hazardous to force pedestrians to touch a surface that many others have also touched. As a result, some California cities have temporarily disabled some or all beg buttons, replacing them with light timing that automatically includes pedestrian cycles and walk signals. On the other hand, officials in some cities still refuse to turn off the buttons, despite the increased risk due to COVID-19.
The need to disable beg buttons for infection control will not be transient. As California loosens the stay at home guidelines and people begin to move around more, we will need to be even more careful not to touch surfaces in public places.
Even when the concern for infection dissipates, we should remove beg buttons from California streets. CalBike is ready to throw our support behind local and statewide campaigns to help planners understand why they should #banbegbuttons.
Beg buttons penalize people for walking
Before beg buttons were invented, city engineers would program the lights to switch from green to red and back again on a cycle that promotes the flow of traffic. Each cycle had to include a pedestrian walk phase in each direction; there was no other way for pedestrians to get the all-clear to cross the street.
In an intersection with a beg button, engineers program the traffic signals for cars without regard to people needing to walk across the street. Some green cycles may be so short that a pedestrian has no chance to cross, unless they press a button.
This presents a barrier to walking in several different ways:
Pedestrians have to wait much longer for a walk signal. If your walk includes multiple beg buttons, this can substantially increase the time it takes to get to your destination. This creates a disincentive for walking.
Pedestrians often have to wait even when the light is green for cars in the direction they want to cross. A green light for phase for cars may display a red hand for pedestrians unless you push a button. If you push the button in the middle of a green phase for cars, you usually have to wait another full cycle before getting a walk signal.
Beg buttons are often hard to access, especially for people with disabilities and mobility issues. Engineers often install a beg button on the nearest pole, which may not be near the crosswalk. Beg buttons frequently violate ADA guidelines.
People often get frustrated with beg buttons or don’t realize they need to push them. Then they cross against the light, putting themselves in danger.
Beg buttons help car drivers by inconveniencing and slowing down walkers. Every time a city installs new beg buttons, that is a physical representation of prioritization of cars and disregard for pedestrians.
Beg buttons are bad for bikes, too
Beg buttons don’t only increase the burden on walkers. They also make it many orders of magnitude harder for bikes to navigate intersections.
Bicyclists often ride on quieter streets, so they may often end up waiting through long cycles at intersections.
Loop detectors in the pavement should detect bikes, but they often don’t. Even if they were adjusted to be sensitive enough to pick up a bike, cars passing over the pavement can throw the detectors off. When that happens, bike riders either have to wait for a car to turn the light or dismount and push a beg button.
Signal detection cameras are somewhat more able to pick up bikes than in-pavement detectors, but they are prone to adjustment problems as well. Grime on the camera lens can prevent them from sensing bikes.
When cities turn beg buttons off, the light cycles from red to green and back again. Everyone gets a turn without hassle: bike riders, walkers, and car drivers.
Local advocates ask cities to #BanBegButtons
There is a small but growing movement to rid California intersections of beg buttons permanently. So far, the action has been at the city level. CalBike supports these local efforts. We will stand with our advocacy partners if a statewide effort seems appropriate in the future.
It’s time to stop penalizing pedestrians and bicyclists. California cities need to #BanBegButtons now!
https://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/IMG_2892-scaled.jpeg19202560Laura McCamyhttps://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/calbike-logo.pngLaura McCamy2020-05-07 17:41:212020-05-07 17:41:21Begging Off Beg Buttons
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended daily life across California. In an effort to enforce physical distancing, many local and state parks have been closed. Yet, people need to get fresh air and they need to exercise. During the stay at home order, many more people than usual are walking, running, or biking. Advocates have been pushing local governments to create Slow Streets – streets that prioritize human movement and provide the space people need to exercise and still stay safe.
Adversity is a great teacher. It shows us what we need more clearly than words can explain.
Like the Open Streets movement, these hyper-local Slow Streets give residents a chance to experience their neighborhoods in a new way. Without cars, streets are wide expanses available for rolling and playing. Kids can learn to bike without worrying about traffic.
Cities around the world and across the US have reallocated street space for use by people-powered movement during the shutdown. California cities, however, have been slow to join the movement. Oakland was the first California city to create Slow Streets for recreation, starting on April 14. As of this writing, Oakland has been joined by neighboring Emeryville and San Francisco. Advocates in Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley, Alameda, and other cities are pushing their local governments to follow suit.
If you want to bring open streets to your community during California’s stay at home order (or anytime), here are some tips on how to make that happen.
A Guide to Bringing Slow Streets to Your Community
To compile this guide, we spoke with some of the activists who helped pioneer Oakland’s Slow Streets. Advocates from Bike East Bay, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO), Transport Oakland, and TransForm worked with the city to help launch an ambitious project to create 74 miles of temporary open streets, called Oakland Slow Streets.
While every community has different concerns and considerations, the takeaways from Oakland’s launch are a good place to start. The city established an important principle up front, by committing not to use the Slow Streets program as an excuse to hand out traffic tickets. In addition, Oakland’s diverse neighborhoods and residents provide lessons that will be applicable in many California communities.
It helps to have a strong advocacy community
When the shelter in place took effect in the Bay Area, advocates got together to discuss the changes needed to keep people safe on the streets. They presented a list to OakDOT. The list included turning off beg buttons, widening sidewalks with cones, changing traffic lights to flashing lights, and messaging about safe driving.
Oakland’s DOT was reluctant to implement most of the items on this list (the advocates are still working on this). But the department surprised them with a different, bold option: a plan to open 74 miles for human-powered recreation. While the city advanced this plan, participation and support from advocates was essential and they continue to work with the city on implementation and iteration of the program.
Build relationships with city staffers and elected officials
The long-term relationships between advocates and city staffers created a foundation of trust. That made it easier for Oakland to launch its ambitious program, because it knew it could lean on walking and biking nonprofits to supplement city resources. And the solid relationships meant that it was easy for each party to reach out to the other.
Build on existing bike networks and campaigns
Oakland chose the 74 miles of current and planned neighborhood bikeways to designate as Slow Streets. While some streets have been taken off the list and others added, the fact that these streets were already in the bike plan gave the city a starting point for the Slow Streets program. Campbell said that the fact that the streets were already in an approved bike plan helped get the city council members on board with Slow Streets.
In addition, speeding was an issue in Oakland neighborhoods long before the stay at home order. “This is such a quick implementation, but WOBO had been pushing the Slow Oakland campaign for many months in advance,” said Chris Hwang, the president of WOBO’s Board of Directors. WOBO was already working on a Slow Oakland campaign to raise awareness of the impact of speed on survivability, street design to lower speeds, especially around schools, and getting people to take a pledge to drive more slowly.
That campaign provided a ready-made foundation for Oakland’s Slow Streets. “It’s not a coincidence that the new signage that’s going up looks like our Slow Oakland materials,” Hwang said.
Keep up the pressure
Oakland is an unusual case because city staffers came up with their own bold plan and had the willingness to roll it out quickly. “Our wish list did not include 74 miles of Slow Streets,” said Bike East Bay Advocacy Director Dave Campbell.
In this case, the city exceeded the advocates’ expectations. But, without a strong advocacy community to lobby for the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians, the building blocks for the city’s plan might not have been in place.
And, in many other cities around California, it’s pressure from bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations and others that will convince staffers and elected leaders to create Slow Streets. It doesn’t hurt that Oakland did it first to provide an example. But activists applying pressure is a key element. Don’t give up.
Do as much outreach as possible and engage local residents
Outreach is hard when you are implementing a quick solution during a crisis, but it’s still essential. “To build a really strong community, you’ve got to have people feel welcomed and that they can be engaged and things don’t have to be dumbed down for them. People are very smart about what needs to be done for their community,” Hwang said. “We tend to be a little bit blind to what people hold closely as priorities for themselves and their families. We could do way better on that.”
However, as Campbell noted, “You can’t knock on people’s doors” because of physical distancing rules. In Oakland, supporters turned to social media as one way to spread the word. “You need engagement because someone is likely to complain,” he noted. You need a local resident to say, ‘This is more important than your concern.’”
In Oakland’s case, much of the outreach has been done during the project. Oakland started with just four streets and has added a few more each week, making adjustments based on community feedback. San Francisco seems to be following a similar model with its COVID open streets program.
Choose your branding carefully
Oakland set a good example with its Slow Streets program. CalBike has been hearing from our statewide network that Slow Streets is a better way to brand these temporary open streets than names that include Open Streets or Safe Streets. A name like Slow Streets helps politicians understand that the streets aren’t closed to cars completely, only to faster through traffic. This helps allay concerns that these streets for COVID distancing will be similar to Open Streets events, which can draw large crowds.
“I think Slow Streets work better for Oakland,” Hwang said. “It differentiates from Open Streets events, and is a bit more descriptive for neighbors and drivers alike.”
Even better, Slow Streets is a concept that can extend to a permanent network of greenways for safe and low-stress biking. Oakland’s Slow Streets, after all, were built on the foundation of WOBO’s pre-coronavirus campaign to slow traffic and create safer streets. If you call your plan Slow Streets (or something in that vein), you are well-positioned to lobby to make all or part of the program permanent after the pandemic passes.
Create a mechanism for evaluation and feedback
It’s important to give people an easily-accessible way to provide feedback (other than knocking over barricades). In Oakland, that has taken the form of a survey and calls and reports to 311.
It’s important to see how people are using the open streets and whether they relieve pressure on crowded parks. This is something that advocates can help with. “In Oakland, we’re ready to do almost all of the evaluation,” Campbell said.
Be willing to iterate and save some resources for adjustments
Ben Kaufman of Transport Oakland, said, “In some neighborhoods there’s a huge response. In others, there’s not much change in the streets. Be able to iterate if you need it.”
Iterations require budget. Make sure the city reserves some budget to implement changes.
Leverage existing networks to get the word out
“You don’t have to build up neighborhood networks from the ground up,” Hwang said. They are already there and you should use them to get the word out so local residents feel included in the process. This can include neighborhood associations, churches, health clinics, and school districts. The Oakland Unified School District does mass communication to thousands of families and distributes food at several locations. Hwang suggests getting “trusted messengers” to spread the word as much as possible.
Keep it simple to minimize staff time needed
One objection that cities have raised to COVID open streets is that they don’t have the budget to implement it properly. However, these projects can be simple and cheap. In Oakland’s case, the city kept things low-key, with barricades and signage to mark the Slow Streets. Neighboring Emeryville brought in water-filled barriers to separate people from cars.
The city will need some engineering time to draw up plans for traffic diversion and crews to place barricades and signs. Bike coalitions can help by asking volunteers to put up signage and serve as (safely distanced) ambassadors. Getting local residents to act as block monitors also helps. “They can be the best messengers of what this is about,” Hwang said.
Oakland may not be able to get to all 74 miles of streets in its plan. “I think it reflects the very real resource constraints the DOT is under,” Kaufman said. He noted that, if the city’s DOT were fully staffed, it could have implemented the plan more quickly.
Still, if Oakland can find a way to do COVID open streets while short-staffed, other cities have no excuse.
Recognize that different neighborhoods may need different solutions
Hwang noted that neighborhoods where there were Oaklavias (Oakland’s Open Streets) tended to embrace the Slow Streets. “Having a real life experience with what things could be like made them more receptive,” she said. “I worry that it’s an uneven experience. You shouldn’t expect that people are going to take this up right away.”
Allow neighborhoods to give their open street its own flavor. Rather than a one-size-fits-all model, create a big framework that can encompass different manifestations.
Support DIY street closures and help make them official
Some people in Oakland couldn’t wait for Slow Streets to come to them, so they made their own. In Oakland’s Brookdale neighborhood, residents closed the street completely using art and found objects and providing their own block monitors. The DIY element adds creativity and fun to open streets.
“That’s a good example of neighbors DIY upgrading a Slow Street and making it better,” Campbell said. “A successful program has a significant DIY component to it.”
Keep Slow Streets local
Slow Streets are different from Open Streets events. You don’t want people to come from all over the city to enjoy the open streets because that can create crowding, which is exactly what COVID open streets are designed to remedy.
You want residents to know it’s coming and to know what it is when it shows up. But you don’t want to tell people who live far away too much because then they’re going to go to it. That’s the challenge,” Campbell said. To keep the streets open for local residents, he said, “Do more than one street. Do a lot.” That’s the best way to create enough space for safe local recreation.
Good signage is a vital communication tool – and it’s harder than you think
Oakland’s Slow Streets allow access for local car traffic, deliveries, and emergency vehicles. Their signage said, “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” Many people misinterpreted or misunderstood this wording.
“A lot of people did not understand what ‘no thru traffic’ means,” Hwang said. In addition, it was tough to translate that wording into other languages. For example, the concept of “thru traffic” doesn’t directly translate into Chinese. What we think of as simple road signage is not so simple,” she said. “Even in English, people didn’t understand.”
Kaufman thought more nuanced signage would have helped in the initial rollout. “It took us a couple of weeks for the city to have signs people could print out,” he said. He felt that signage with the Slow Streets branding made it easier to communicate to local residents.
Don’t use the police to enforce the open streets
One of the big concerns in Oakland is that Slow Streets might bring oppressive enforcement into communities that are already over-policed. It’s a program failure if open streets lead to racial profiling or oppression of disadvantaged communities. “You just don’t want the police involved,” Campbell said. “You want them doing things that are more important for police officers to do.”
“There should be no need for the police,” he added. “If the design of your system requires some kind of enforcement or security personnel monitoring, you didn’t design it right. Go back and redesign it.”
Toole Design has additional insights about not using police to enforce social distancing and open streets.
More resources for creating #COVID19Streets
There are some great resources for planners and advocates who want to create Slow Streets.
If you need more inspiration, urban planner Mike Lydon has been tracking #COVID19Streets from around the world in a google spreadsheet, to give you a basis for comparison. Transportation researcher Dr. Tabitha Coombs has compiled a comprehensive database of urban responses to the need for more open space around the world.
Oakland’s experience covers a lot of bases, but other communities may have additional issues. Did we miss something that’s important in your neighborhood? Is there a resource we didn’t include? Let us know. We will update this guide with additional best practices.
https://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/IMG_2844-2-scaled.jpeg10382560Laura McCamyhttps://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/calbike-logo.pngLaura McCamy2020-04-28 17:48:312020-05-05 13:37:28How to Create Slow Streets During the Pandemic
Oakland became the first California city to join the growing list of world cities that are designating COVID open streets. Open streets are a smart way to create more public space for walking and biking during the coronavirus pandemic. Oakland designated 74 miles of its existing and proposed neighborhood bikeway network as “closed to through traffic so that people can more comfortably use these low-traffic streets for physically distant walking, wheelchair rolling, jogging, and biking all across the City.” About 10% of Oakland’s roadways will become COVID open streets.
Many Californians are rediscovering the bicycle right now. It is a great way to maintain physical distance while traveling for essential work or getting exercise. The same thing is happening with walking. CalBike and many other organizations are promoting and supporting the trend. CalBike helped to get the state to clarify that bike repair shops are essential California businesses. But the sidewalks and bikeways remain crowded because we have given almost all of our shared space to cars, not people.
Like Open Streets events, COVID open streets demonstrate an alternative way of organizing our communities. “We hope that people will deeply appreciate the safety, the serenity, the civility, of open streets during this special period and demand that those conditions are made permanent after this crisis passes,” said Dave Snyder, Executive Director of the California Bicycle Coalition.
Oakland Sets the Bar High with 74 Miles of “Slow Streets”
In Oakland, local advocates had been in conversation with the city about opening Oakland streets for walking and biking and closing those streets to most car traffic. The organizations pushing for COVID open streets include Bike East Bay, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO), Transport Oakland, and Transform. Even so, they were surprised by the speed with which the City of Oakland moved ahead with the plan, according to Bike East Bay Advocacy Director Dave Campbell.
Campbell and representatives of other advocacy groups are still talking with the city about the implementation of the plan. The city’s web page for the program, called Oakland Slow Streets, lists four areas that will be closed to most traffic starting on Saturday, April 11. Local traffic and emergency vehicles are still allowed to enter while the streets are closed to through traffic. Officials plan to use tactical urbanism to implement the changes. This may include strategically parked cars, traffic cones, and lots of signs.
“We applaud the City of Oakland’s actions that will keep residents healthy and safe during the shelter in place order,” Campbell said. “We look forward to partnering with more Oakland communities and neighborhoods to understand how to best create open space for safe physical distancing.”
Campbell spoke with CalBike from one of the open streets on the first morning of implementation. He reported a street filled with roller skaters, dog-walkers, joggers, and lots of kids, all safely physically distanced. “It’s working well on the first day,” he said.
The test will be in the days to come. Campbell hopes there won’t be any police activity on the COVID open streets. He emphasized that it’s important that families still feel free to use the streets in front of their homes. Local residents shouldn’t feel pushed out by people coming from other neighborhoods.
Oakland is using this map of current and planned bike routes as the basis for which streets will become Slow Streets.
Will Other California Cities Join Oakland?
Biking and walking advocates have been pressuring other California cities for open streets during this time. Los Angeles advocates have proposed a huge network of open streets. In San Francisco the SF Bicycle Coalition and others have proposed closing John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to cars to increase space for walking and biking. Officials in both of those cities opposed the measures, citing concerns that they would attract too many people. The Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition on Friday sent letters to officials in cities throughout their region asking for emergency bikeways and sidewalk widenings.
Emeryville may be the next California city to create open streets during the stay at home order. City Councilmember John Bauters gave CalBike this statement: “As the Emeryville City Council’s Transportation Committee members, Councilmember [Ally] Medina and I have outlined a long term vision that converts public streets into bicycle and pedestrian-only rights of way. We are in discussions with city staff about how to pilot or otherwise implement some of our ideas during COVID-19, including the closure or limitation of some streets to vehicular traffic.” And, with Oakland setting the bar high, some other East Bay cities that had previously refused to create open streets for COVID physical distancing.
We hope that more communities in California will opt for open streets to allow healthy, distanced exercise. And, after the pandemic recedes, we hope that towns and cities will move aggressively to create space for safe biking and walking every day. That’s a step we need to take to mitigate the even bigger looming crisis of climate change.
Bring COVID Open Streets to Your Neighborhood
The pandemic opens up some possibilities at the same time it forecloses others. California’s state and local governments have shown their willingness to make difficult choices to benefit public health. We have all seen how quickly we can adapt to huge changes in our daily lives.
https://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/FullSizeRender-e1609031822961.jpeg8551073Laura McCamyhttps://www.calbike.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/calbike-logo.pngLaura McCamy2020-04-11 15:22:032020-04-15 16:19:04Oakland Brings COVID Open Streets to California Streets