An interview with Benjamin Ulrey (M.C.P. '22), one of the members of the Slow Streets project, another summer paid-internship experience initiated by the DCRP Summer Projects Program
What is the Oakland Slow Streets program?
It's pretty simple: in response to the isolating effects of shelter in place, Oakland wanted to give its residents spaces to exercise, recreate, and travel. They realized they could do this by simply closing streets to through traffic. The first iteration of the program, which is what we were analyzing, consisted of a number of streets being 'closed' throughout the city. Oakland put out "No Thru Traffic" signs on each end of a Slow Street and called it a day.
What was your project and what work did it entail?
Our project focused on two things: understanding how Oakland residents have responded to Slow Streets and imagining ways in which the Slow Streets program could be expanded, either for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic or permanently. We worked from June to August to produce a 52-page report with our recommendations for the city of Oakland.
Our main goal was to align our recommendations with the initial justification for Slow Streets -- namely, to improve the mental and physical health of residents through access to open space for exercise, recreation, and travel. [Our] team ultimately came up with three main ways that Slow Streets can continue to improve safety and public health, focusing on fostering community ownership and providing critical resources to residents. This came in the form of a Site Analysis, a Precedent Catalog, and a Programming Catalog.
- We conducted the Site Analysis in order to understand the Slow Streets. Some guiding questions included: How are they used? What works or doesn’t work? What differences exist between Slow Streets across the city? Each team member went out to two different Slow Streets and recorded a bunch of information on street conditions (width, pavement quality, signs on street, # of street trees, etc), sidewalk conditions (same as the street) neighborhood conditions (presence of single vs multi-family, industrial vs commercial, parks, parking lots, etc), how the street was used (# of drivers who pass by, # of pedestrians, # of bicyclists, # of vehicle violations, were the pedestrians using the street or walking on the sidewalk, etc)
- We observed each street two different times, once on a weekend and one on a weekday, within a set time period in order to control for variability how the streets are used. We knew from OakDOT’s data that there was a knowledge gap for Slow Streets located in West and East Oakland, so we only went to streets in those neighborhoods.
- After completing the site analysis and seeing some of the issues on the streets, we wanted to explore ways that Slow Streets could change to create walkable, safe, and welcoming space for Oakland residents (the one constant being that they’d stay closed to thru-traffic or completely closed). Our team did researched precedents from around the world to be potential models for Slow Streets in Oakland. We focused on programs which promoted community ownership of space, specifically Play Streets and Living Streets. We also looked at a number of different design precedents which Oakland might consider adopting. Additionally, we prepared this list of design precedents so Oakland could use them in a Visual Preference survey to get feedback from residents about what sort of interventions they wanted to see on their street. We recognized that certain design interventions were more appropriate for certain neighborhoods and we wanted to give Oakland a tool to investigate this.
- Our team thought about ways that the Slow Streets themselves could be used in alternative ways to address underlying inequities in Oakland’s neighborhoods. We came up with the idea to use the new open space created by Slow Streets as a place to host community services and critical resources for residents. Rather than asking residents to go to the brick and mortar locations, we wanted to explore the idea of having them come to the streets. Our team then researched a number of existing Oakland community organizations whose work might be appropriate for OakDOT to partner with, and hypothesized ways to transform the Slow Streets space into a place where services could be provided.
How did you and others become involved?
After COVID-19 hit, many of our internships and potential internships were cancelled, so DCRP created an internship program on their own to help us out. Our team applied and were chosen to be on the Slow Streets project. I’m very thankful to DCRP for creating this opportunity for me -- I honestly probably would not have gotten any internship experience if it weren’t for them.
Who have you been working with?
We’ve been working primarily with Warren Logan, the City of Oakland’s Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations.
Take me through a typical day or week on the job.
There isn’t really a typical day! The Site Analysis was probably the most “routine” of our tasks: going out to the streets at the same time on a weekend and a weekday to observe conditions and behavior. We first walked the entirety of the street to get an understanding of where it would change (for example, if a residential block suddenly gave way to industrial). To account for these changes in the built environment, we divided the street along these “segments” and took observations for 20 minutes at each. This got to be very time consuming on the larger streets! Some would have four or five segments, meaning I was out for almost all afternoon on some days.
In general, our work process went Site Analysis → Precedent Catalog + Programming Catalog → Final Report. The report itself took a few weeks and a number of iterations to complete, and writing it was by far the largest and most intense period of the project (at least to me).
In general though, I tried to spend about 10 hours a week on my work, either out at one of the Slow Streets or doing research for the different sections of the report.
What challenges did you encounter with the project?
We had to make some big assumptions in the Site Analysis. We knew our observations were only a small sample of how the streets were being used, but we believed it was crucial to collect that data and try to reach some conclusions anyway. To our knowledge, we were the first ones to conduct observations of Oakland’s Slow Streets in that manner. I believe what we found was valuable, even if only a small sample.
Additionally, we would have liked to have interviewed people on the street or community organizations about their thoughts on the Slow Streets and what OakDOT could do to improve them. Ultimately, we didn’t have enough time or resources to do that type of outreach, especially since Oakland was conducting a very similar type of survey. Our original Scope of Work had a community outreach section but that was scrapped halfway through the summer.
My biggest takeaway is that the “success” of a Slow Street seems to depend on the conditions, culture, and context of the street before it was closed. Streets which were built in a way which heavily favors the safety of bikers and pedestrians will continue to thrive after they become a Slow Street (the number of users might even increase!). Streets which are unsafe (or even feel unsafe) are highly unlikely to change much simply by being designated a Slow Street. These unsafe conditions pre-pandemic stem from historic disinvestment as well as bad (or even malicious) planning decisions made in certain neighborhoods across the city. As is often the case in American cities, these differences fall largely along racial and ethnic lines. From the beginning of our report, we knew we did not need to investigate how the Slow Streets were faring in North Oakland.
This isn’t to say I disagree with the Slow Street idea. After doing this research, I just think that when a city considers adopting the Slow Street program they also need to consider what more they can be doing to improve the safety and well-being of all of their residents, not just those who live in neighborhoods that were historically privileged by the planners in the past.