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Randy LoBasso is pushing to make bicycling safer and more equitable in Philadelphia.
But, as COVID-19 shut down businesses and schools, the bike-as-transportation enthusiast found people crowding local bike trails and making it hard to practice social/physical distancing.
LoBasso had a thought.
What if Philadelphia (15% Latino) closed streets to car traffic? Could people use streets to freely bike, walk, and be physically activity while also maintaining six-feet distance?
LoBasso led an “open streets” petition and got the city to close a major street to cars, and open it for people walking, biking, and rolling.
And he’s not stopping there.
LoBasso Understands Need for Biking as a Means of Transportation, Access to Opportunity
LoBasso isn’t a spandex-wearing bicyclist.
Although he sometimes bikes to work, he is actually more of a runner.
But he understands the importance of walking, running and biking for mental and physical health.
He also understands the importance of biking as a mode of transportation to access opportunity, and that some populations, such as Latinos, lack both access and opportunity.
“A bicycle is a default vehicle,” LoBasso said. “In Philadelphia County, 30% of households don’t have a vehicle.”
That’s why LoBasso has been advocating for safe places to bike in Philadelphia for almost six years with the Bicycle Coalition for Greater Philadelphia (BCGP).
From BCPG’s communications manager to policy manager, he advocates for safe bicycle infrastructure across the city and the state.
“I’m advocating for bike lanes, but when it comes down to it, I’m advocating for a safer and healthier city,” Lobasso said.
For example, to build the case for a safer transportation network, on January 30, 2020, he Tweeted that data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation show per capita economic loss of traffic crashes nearly doubled in 5 years, from $1,099 in 2013 to $2,051 in 2018.
Amid Pandemic, LoBasso Transitions from Bike-to-Work to Bike-for-Activity
LoBasso had been riding his more frequently while his calf healed from a running injury.
Then, Philadelphia, like cities across the world, shut down in response to COVID-19.
“Usually, biking was just to get to and from work, but that changed with the pandemic,” LoBasso said.
To slow the spread of coronavirus, Philadelphia closed non-essential businesses on March 16, 2020, and required essential businesses to enforce six-foot physical distancing.
In Philadelphia, this is called Allen Iverson Distancing. Iverson played for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers for 15 years. At six feet tall, Iverson became the shortest NBA MVP in history in 2001.
LoBasso did his part to help flatten curve. He worked from home and avoided going in public.
He started to get stir crazy. Like many others, he wanted to exercise, and he wanted a change of scenery, but gyms and fitness studios were closed.
“Per the mayor’s order, people are still allowed outdoors if practicing social distancing,” LoBasso said.
He decided the safest way to be active outdoors while maintaining six feet—Allen Iverson Distancing—from others would be to ride his bike.
Since he wasn’t going to ride his bike to work, he decided to ride his bike to the Kelly Drive Trail.
LoBasso Finds People Don’t Have Enough Space to Practice Physical Distancing Outdoors
The trail was too busy to both bike and maintain six feet distance from others.
“I got there and it was packed with people,” LoBasso said. “It was almost impossible to keep six feet from everyone on the trail.”
This worried LoBasso for obvious health reasons.
But it also worried him because some cities were closing parks and trails because residents failed to maintain the six-foot-rule.
For example, Kyle Lucas started a petition in Chicago after Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the Chicago Lakefront Trail and the 606.
“While the crowding along these trails was incredibly reckless and necessitated action from the city, the decision from the Mayor was far too sweeping and has ignored the reality that workers deemed essential still need to be able to commute to work everyday,” the petition states.
LoBasso didn’t want trails and parks to get shut down.
“This is a big public health issue,” LoBasso said. “Groups like us are comfortable working in the realm of figuring out how to rededicate public space.”
In fact, he though the city should be working to open more outdoor spaces, like streets.
For example, Philadelphia has opens streets every weekend from April to October.
Known as Philly Free Streets, every year since the 1990s, MLK Drive has closed to vehicle traffic on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. to give people space to walk, run and bike.
However, this initiative was two weeks away and only on the weekend.
LoBasso experienced the crowded trail on a Tuesday.
Actually, he had also been experiencing crowded sidewalks.
When walking with his daughter, LoBasso sees people walk in the street with motor vehicle traffic to effectively distance themselves from others.
He has heard this from multiple people across the city.
“It’s already happening,” LoBasso said. “We have to do something to fix this.”
He emailed someone with the city’s transportation department to ask if they had considered closing streets to vehicles during the pandemic.
They said, “No.”
That’s when LoBasso knew he had to act.
“I don’t blame anybody,” LoBasso said. “This isn’t something we haven’t dealt with before, but as long as people are going outside, they have to be given a safe way to stay healthy and active.”
Petitions Are One Tool is LoBasso’s Bike Advocacy Toolbelt
LoBasso decided an “open streets” petition to city officials was necessary.
He had created petitions before.
For example, in February 2020, LoBasso started a petition urging the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee to withdraw an amendment to a bill that BCGP and other bicycle and pedestrian safety advocacy groups had worked so hard to get passed through the Pennsylvania House.
The bill (HB 792) would modify the state Vehicle Code to make it easier to install parking-protected bike lanes across the state.
However, the amendment would make it more difficult to install bike lanes in Philadelphia specifically.
LoBasso’s petition got 1,500 signatures overnight.
The amendment was withdrawn the next day.
“It’s never good for advocacy groups to push elected officials for what they want [without asking the public first],” LoBasso said. “We have to show them there is support from a wide audience, and a petition can show that wide range of support.”
Amid the pandemic, LoBasso wanted to see if people in Philadelphia supported the closure of streets to vehicles for more space for outdoor activity.
“I think this is what is going to make the city safer right now and make the city healthier long-term,” LoBasso said.
LoBasso Builds Case for Open Streets Petition During Coronavirus
LoBasso wondered if the trail was really busier than usual or if it was just his perception. Either way, he knew he needed numbers to make his case for open streets.
“It was one thing for me to see anecdotally a lot of people on the trail and what I thought was not getting enough distance from one another,” LoBasso said.
So, he reached out to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission because they control the electronic trails on the trails in the nine-county region.
They crunched the numbers and got back with him the next day.
“Turns out, bicycling on Kelly drive was up 471% compared to a year ago,” LoBasso said. “Every trail was up at least 75%. Something had to be changed [to ensure the ability to both bike and stay physically distant].”
Because of Philly Free Streets, the infrastructure to close MLK was already in place.
“They have big steel gates that say, ‘road closed,’” LoBasso said.
He knew the city could at least start with MLK Drive.
LoBasso Creates Open Streets Petition During Coronavirus
On March 19, 2020, LoBasso made the petition public.
“Once we made it public, it just seemed so obvious to so many people,” LoBasso said. “No one can isolate indoors for this long. People want to be healthy and they don’t want to get or spread the virus. This is the only option I can see short- and long-term.”
Around the same time, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy created a nationwide open streets petition calling on mayors and local elected officials to close select streets to vehicle traffic to increase open access to safe outdoor space for people walk or bike while maintaining physical distance during the COVID-19 crisis.
No one can isolate indoors for this long. People want to be healthy and they don’t want to get or spread the virus. This is the only option I can see short- and long-term.Randy LoBasso
Policy Manager, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
LoBasso’s petition got over 1,000 signatures within 24 hours.
Able to demonstrate wide support for open streets, LoBasso sent it to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
On March 20, 2020, Mayor Kenney announced the closure of MLK drive.
“Since MLK closed to vehicles, people are doing better at socially distancing while outdoors,” LoBasso said.
LoBasso Continues Push for More Open Streets amid Coronavirus
But one open street isn’t enough in a city with 1.5 million residents.
He knows city departments are stretched thin right now, so he put together a map and built a stronger case for more open streets.
LoBasso knows that safe routes for people to walk and bike will be good for:
- People who don’t own a vehicle, but need to access COVID-19 testing sites. This is especially important for Latino populations and other people of color, who experience disparities in coronavirus exposure, testing, prevention and more;
- People who deliver goods by bicycle for people who don’t want to leave their homes; and
- People in every district in the city, particularly historically underserved areas.
For example, Hunting Park is in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in the city, according to LoBasso.
The median household income in Hunting Park neighborhood (50.9% Latino) is $21,993 compared to $41,449 citywide.
“Decades ago, the park was split by a highway,” LoBasso said. “One of the things we are asking for is to close streets through Hunting Park to give people in those areas access to more open space.”
In fact, many parks in Philadelphia have main streets running through them. LoBasso and others want to close them.
“Here are these almost empty 4-lane roads next to a packed 10-foot-wide trail,” LoBasso said. “We need to give people the space they critically need during this pandemic to practice social distancing.”
LoBasso presented the map and the case for more open streets to some individual council members. He asked them how they would go about getting support from colleagues.
They suggested asking council members to sign a letter supporting open streets.
On April 3, 2020, he emailed each member of city council with the map and the case for more open streets, asking them to sign a letter to the mayor supporting more open streets by April 6, 2020.
“While MLK Drive is a centrally-located corridor in Philadelphia, it’s not accessible to folks in neighborhoods around Philadelphia, all of whom need space to socially distance as they head outside,” the letter states. “INRIX data shows that vehicle volume is down 37% in Philadelphia since the beginning of stay at home orders, creating the opportunity to continue this successful strategy and close more roads to vehicles.
Five councilmembers signed the letter written by BCGP, Clean Air Council, Feet First Philly, and 5th Square.
On April 8, LoBasso sent the letter to the mayor.
“This is something we can continue to do after the pandemic,” LoBasso said. “Not just for the bike community in Philly, but for everyone who wants to get outside.”
“Think less ‘Block Party’ and more “Streets-to-Trails,'” wrote Kea Wilson with Streetsblog USA as one of four tips to open streets right during social distancing.
“Network your streets into a system that can be used for transportation and mobility because that’s going to help our healthcare workers get to work and all of us to be able to get groceries safely,” Tweeted city planner and urbanist Brent Toderian as one of 10 ways cities can create new space on streets for people to walk and bike.
More cities across the US and the world are closing streets to vehicles and opening them to people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Urge leaders in your community to do something similar.
You can also sign the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy nationwide open streets petition.
Explore More:Transportation & Mobility
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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