Like many New Yorkers, I’ve been staying home as much as possible in an attempt to do my part to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. And like many New Yorkers, my apartment is not especially big, so I’ve been taking short, socially distant walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood every few days to combat feelings of stir-craziness.
But maintaining six to 10 feet of space between myself and others has proven to be its own anxiety-inducing challenge. The sidewalks in my neighborhood are not particularly wide, and I usually end up ducking into the street to avoid getting too close to others. Everyday obstacles like sidewalk sheds, piles of trash, or even other people have become a major health hazard. (The Department of City Planning recently tweeted a visual that was intended to help people understand how to appropriately socially distance themselves on NYC sidewalks; all it illustrated is how difficult this is to do in New York City.)
I’m not the only one experiencing this problem, which led elected officials to call for an obvious solution: turning city streets over to pedestrians and cyclists in order to give New Yorkers the space they need to keep their distance from one another.
“In dense neighborhoods, especially in Manhattan, the sidewalks are way too crowded. There’s only so much space,” says City Council member Mark Levine. “We know the streets that are typically easy to close, and precincts should move immediately to cone those off and give people more room to avoid each other in public.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually directed the city to implement a pilot program to pedestrianize some city streets in an effort to give New Yorkers more space to spread out. The pilot, which began on March 27, opened up four locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. And then, citing a lack of interest in the program, City Hall cut it short on April 5, just 10 days after it was implemented.
The pilot—which opened up just 1.6 miles of roadways throughout those four boroughs—seemed doomed to fail from the start, as New York’s Justin Davidson notes:
Despite the mayor’s hedging and complaining, the only equipment needed to make that a reality already sits in city stockpiles: some wooden barriers, detour signs, and orange cones. Yes, some cops would be needed — to prevent drivers from trespassing though, rather than to chaperone pedestrians. Winnipeg did it. Bogotá somehow managed to expand its network of bike lanes virtually overnight. In New York, the only scarce resource is political will.
Joggers, cyclists, and even those taking short strolls (like me) are already using our roadways to stay away from one another—why not make it easier, and safer, for us to do so by closing more streets to vehicular traffic?
With the state on “pause” to combat the spread of COVID-19, New Yorkers are being asked to stay home with some exceptions, such as getting exercise; if you do go outside, you’re asked to maintain a safe distance from other people. But “social distancing” is all but impossible in our cramped bodegas, laundromats, grocery stores, and apartments. Even the city’s open spaces are challenging to navigate right now. While there are plenty of people who’ve been flouting the social distancing rules, but there’s also simply not enough space outdoors for people to stay more than six feet apart from one another.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was the first to make the suggestion in an interview with Politico, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an unlikely supporter of the idea, chimed in. “There are many options, you have much less traffic in New York City,” Cuomo said during a recent press conference. “Get creative, open streets to reduce the density. Let’s open streets, let’s open space, that’s where people should be.”
He’s not wrong: Rush-hour traffic has dropped dramatically, with fewer people commuting in and out of the city. And other cities have already taken similar steps to give pedestrians and cyclists more space: Philadelphia’s mayor closed part of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, to vehicular traffic in order to facilitate social distancing. Bogotá temporarily expanded its network of bike lanes to encourage solo means of getting around; Mexico City is considering a similar measure. Advocates say it’s time for New York City to follow suit.
Transportation Alternatives and Bike New York have shared several ideas for places where the city could pedestrianize streets, including the New York City Marathon route; the stretch of Park Avenue that’s typically closed for Summer Streets; thoroughfares in that are often closed for block parties or street fairs; and streets in park-deprived neighborhoods, of which there are many.
“With the closure of 2,067 playgrounds, every neighborhood in the city is losing critical open space,” a joint statement from Transportation Alternatives’ Danny Harris and Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt reads. “Just as every family in New York deserves access to a nearby playground in ordinary times, this crisis demands rapid action to create an extensive network of emergency open streets, accessible to more New Yorkers.”
Cuomo asked Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council for a plan on reducing density in open areas, and the Council submitted a proposal that includes closing spaces where gatherings are inevitable—such as playgrounds and athletics fields—while also creating more open space in park-deprived neighborhoods, and possibly banning cars on some streets using the model that’s already in place for Summer Streets or Play Streets. The Council plan also suggests opening up private spaces, such as college campuses or botanical gardens, with strict limits on how many people can access them at a given time.
“We’re a cramped city in a lot of places, and our parks and playgrounds are like our backyards. But overcrowding is a serious issue right now, and we had to come up with guidelines for use of these spaces to keep everyone safe,” Council Speaker Johnson said in a statement. “We also want to open up streets to pedestrians for exercise and fresh air to offset the loss. This won’t be forever but we have to do everything we can right now to stop the spread.”
At the same time, the NYPD has already said it will enforce the new social distancing rules by breaking up large gatherings in public spaces; Cuomo recently upped the fines for those who aren’t obeying social distancing rules to $1,000. But there’s a concern that this mode of enforcement could unfairly target certain New Yorkers more than others.
De Blasio has repeatedly stressed his fear that if larger sections of street are pedestrianized, more people will gather and not practice social distancing. “We’re certainly going to consider over time the possibility of opening up some streets for recreation,” de Blasio said during a recent press conference. “If we’re going to look to have a street that’s opened up for recreation, we’re going to do that very smartly and carefully because we have to attach enforcement to it. It cannot be, oh, we’re just going to close off some streets and leave it be. If we do that, I guarantee what will happen is a whole lot of people start to congregate.”
That congregating is already happening, whether intentionally or simply because New Yorkers have no other option. Staying home is the safest course of action right now, but people also need to get outside, whether to buy groceries, wash their clothes, or simply to take a walk for their own sanity. (Our own mayor has been taking daily walks in Prospect Park, 12 miles away from his home in Gracie Mansion, so he clearly understands the importance of getting outdoors at this very stressful time.) Let’s give them as much space as possible to do all of that safely.