George Chapman: Decision to ‘close’ streets creates anger and may hurt businesses

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Dan Dergenthal sets up a sign on 500 North, April 23, 2020. Salt Lake City is temporarily closing some city streets to cars in an effort to promote social distancing. 500 North is the first street that has been designated.

On May 14, signs went up on Stratford Avenue (from 1300 East to 2000 East) that said: "Stay Safe, Stay Active, Street is open to walking and bicycling."

The local Sugar House Community Council was told about it the night before. Residents of the neighborhood were informed when they saw the signs.

The city’s plan to encourage bicycling and walking in the streets, until now, had been popular with other communities. But the Stratford Avenue conversion has resulted in many complaints to the Community Council. It was mentioned during the May 19 City Council work session.

Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who represents the district, said that “quite a lot of the neighbors were incredibly upset and thought that they were blindsided.”

The plan was to try to take advantage of the reduced traffic caused by the COVID-19 restrictions and open up the streets to more than vehicles in order to benefit everyone. The city, “wanted more of a fun atmosphere … something to get people out.” But the neighbors and businesses on the street did not know it was coming.

Although the city said that they did do engagement, almost everyone who complained did not know about it. The city had a week-long online survey with 6,200 responses and 3,794 comments. Out of those commenting, about half (1881) had concerns. Not many community councils in the city were given a heads up about the streets that were planned for conversion.

Portions of these streets have already been converted to what essentially are shared streets: 500 North, 900 South, 600 East, 200 West, Emery, Wasatch Drive, Stratford, 4th Avenue and 200 West. Among the other streets that are being considered are 800 East, Kensington, 700 South, 11th Avenue, 1500 East, 1900 East, 800 West, 1200 West, N Street, 500 North, Garfield, Westminster Ave and Q Street.

A page on the city’s website says, “Motorists are asked to drive slowly and with extra caution. Foot and bicycle traffic are asked to be extra cautious around motorists and to respect their right to access homes and businesses by moving to the side of the road when necessary to allow them to pass. Consider the street to be shared. All users should respect others, allowing each to use the street together.”

Some of the complaints had to do with pedestrians and bicyclists thinking that they owned the road and they blocked vehicles. Other complaints came from businesses along the street that depend on vehicle traffic to restore business. Parking may be impacted on some streets. The city is looking for more signage that makes it clear to residents and businesses that traffic and delivery vehicles are still allowed.

During the survey, concerns were raised about increasing traffic on adjacent streets, bicycling on streets with pedestrians could be more disruptive, big groups may develop and why not ask the local communities instead of the whole city? If you have comments, complaints or would like to report issues on any of the open streets, please email communityoutreach@slcgov.com or call the comment line at (801) 535-7711.

Before any further streets are converted, there should be a vigorous local community engagement (which is supposed to be a city policy recently emphasized by the City Council) and get local/community councils’ input, discussion and recommendations on which streets are appropriate. Streets with many local businesses should not be considered, as local traffic only signs will hurt local small businesses. Congestion and pollution should not be increased by forcing traffic and pedestrians and bicyclists to be in one lane (forced by medians like portions of 600 East and 800 East).

The idea that kids can safely play in the street may be a wonderful vision but there should be other considerations and local residents and businesses should feel that they are being listened to.

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor and writes a blog at www,georgechapman.net.

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