Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Coronavirus

STEAL THIS IDEA: Washington DOT To Give Lanes Back to People on State Roads

In a rare example of collaboration between city and state DOTs that doesn't center the needs of drivers, the Washington State Department of Transportation will allow cities to temporarily reallocate lanes on state roads for uses other than driving.

The Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Program will help communities "identify, plan, design, install and maintain" temporary projects like parking spot patios for restaurants, pop-up bike lanes, sidewalk extensions and even full-scale Open Streets events on state highways with speed limits under 35 miles an hour.

Lane reallocation programs have become more common in the wake of the COVID-19 as cities have scrambled to make more space for social distancing. But many cities are riven with state-controlled roads that aren't locally maintained and can't quickly be repurposed by municipalities.

In West Virginia, for instance, fully 89 percent of roadways were administered by the state DOT at last count, compared to just 6 percent in New Jersey. The majority of American cities are criss-crossed by a complex combination of interlocking state and locally owned thoroughfares — a fact that has long stymied equitable, network-wide road changes, like contiguous bike lanes. In the age of COVID-19, that's meant that even the best pop-up bike lane on a local road might come to a sudden stop when it intersects with a state highway — a bureaucratic stumbling block which can deter local DOTs from trying even even the lightest-touch temporary road change at all.

The Washington DOT's program may be the first state-administered program of its kind — and if the model is replicated in the many, many states with a large number of urban highways, it has the potential to be transformative.

Transformation for whom is an important question, however. As Streetsblog has covered extensively, pandemic-era lane reallocation initiatives have faced criticism from communities of color in cities like New York, and Oakland for being rolled out without meaningful community engagement or, worse, with enforcement by cops, who have a track record of violent over-policing.

And in New York City, more roadways are being reclaimed from cars for use by private restaurants, which some have said risks commercializing space, creating new haves and have-nots.

Still, Washington leaders have the potential to learn from other states' equity mistakes — and if nothing else, the state DOT program will expand city leaders' toolboxes for delivering residents changes they actually want. Other states should follow their lead — just as cities should keep talking about how to use this powerful new tool to help rather than harm.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Friday’s Headlines Take Me to the River

Politico reports that the Biden administration is investing $2.5 billion in updating aging Mississippi River locks and dams like this one in Iowa. Transporting freight by barge produces less emissions than trucks or even rail.

July 12, 2024

Friday Video: Take a Spin on Boston’s Electric Cargo Bike Share

Can't afford a $7,000 Urban Arrow cargo e-bike ? In Boston, you can now rent one for just a few bucks.

July 12, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: Electrify the Rails

Adrianna Rizzo of Californians for Electric Rail on California's looming lobbyist-fueled hydrogen train mistake: "We’re locking in low service for potentially decades."

July 11, 2024

Thursday’s Headlines Drive Less

Seems obvious that the more people drive, the more likely they are to die in a crash or kill someone else, but traditional thinking on traffic safety doesn't always follow that logic, according to Planetizen.

July 11, 2024
See all posts