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A simple solution to safe pandemic voting: Close streets to let people vote outside

A new guide helps cities understand how to best use space to maximize distance and speed on Election Day.

A simple solution to safe pandemic voting: Close streets to let people vote outside
[Image: Street Plans]

A record number of people have already voted in the U.S. presidential election—more than 8 million Americans had voted by October 9, more than 50 times above the number that had voted by the same point in 2016. But even as many states push for voting by mail as a safe alternative in a pandemic, it’s possible that in-person voting could surge on Election Day, with many voters questioning mismanagement of the Postal Service or if their ballots will get thrown out on a technicality. If it looks anything like what happened in some state primaries, people might have to wait in line for hours.

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[Image: Street Plans]
A group of transportation planners and urban designers has a suggestion: Temporarily redesign streets to make the experience safer for those who do show up at the polls. “Our assumption is that there will be millions of people who vote on foot in person,” says Michael Lydon, a principal at Street Plans, a planning firm that worked on Streets for Voting, a new guide to help election officials plan. “And the spatial implications of the worst-case scenario could be pretty dire.” In suburbs, where some locations may allow voting by car, parking lots need to be set up the right way to accommodate crowds.

[Image: Street Plans]
The guide isn’t prescriptive, since every location is different. But at a polling place on an urban street, it may often make sense to shut down most of the street to allow for a long, socially distant line, and making a plan to close down adjacent streets to manage traffic. (In some cases, where a street can’t be closed, the line might be designed to spill into an adjacent park or schoolyard.) Psychologically, Lydon says, research shows that lines are better received when they snake in place rather than spreading around the block. “It facilitates the ability to have a shorter footprint overall, and be visually closer to the entrance,” he says. In some cases, if cities have the right infrastructure and weather to make it feasible, voting booths could also be outside, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is much lower.

[Image: Street Plans]
In places where people can vote by car, election officials will have to carefully plan how to manage that physical space and how to design the layout of voting booths. “Some people also don’t own cars, so you have to think about how to manage that and not ask someone to line up between two moving cars for half an hour,” he says.

It’s the type of planning that election officials don’t normally have to do. Earlier in the summer, the designers partnered with the National Association of City Transportation Officials and Bloomberg Associates to create a separate guide for street design in the pandemic recovery, which also talked about the issue of voting. Now, election officials will likely have to partner with transportation departments to make detailed plans. They can also think about how to make the experience less painful, Lydon says; they might decide to allow musicians to perform on-site, for example. “One of the things we look at is not just the safety and spatial aspects, but how do you make voting not suck when you’re in line for a while?” he says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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