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Could part of Broadway go car-free to encourage social distancing?

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City officials and neighborhood groups want a chunk of Broadway opened to pedestrians to make social distancing easier

Major Cities In The U.S. Adjust To Restrictive Coronavirus Measures
A stretch of Broadway in Soho on April 12.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Could a large swath of Broadway go car-free for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic? Some city officials argue that it’s possible—if Mayor Bill de Blasio would stop being resistant to the idea of pedestrianizing more of New York City’s streets.

Streetsblog NYC reports that a growing coalition of city lawmakers, business improvement districts (BID), and community leaders has called on the de Blasio administration to clear parts of the thoroughfare of cars to give New Yorkers more room to get outside while also maintaining social distancing guidelines. Leaders of BIDs that represent the neighborhoods along Broadway have backed the initiative, which also has the support of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

In a letter to de Blasio, Brewer and four City Council members who represent portions of Manhattan—Corey Johnson, Carlina Rivera, Margaret Chin, and Keith Powers—backed the Broadway plan, calling it “a useful potential pilot location that would lean on community organizations.”

Broadway has already served, in a way, as a prototype for pedestrianization: For the past four years, the Department of Transportation has celebrated Earth Day (which happens in a week) by closing the section of the thoroughfare between Union Square and Times Square to vehicular traffic. This year, Car-Free Day has been canceled, but those NYC lawmakers argue that that the roadway could still be given over to pedestrians with the help of BIDs, block associations, and other neighborhood groups.

“The corridor is well-served—especially between Times Square and Chinatown—by a number of BIDs that may be able to assist the City in implementing and maintaining closures while ensuring that critical city resources are not diverted,” the letter reads. “Moreover, it would also offer residents badly-needed space on a contiguous street that cuts through the heart of several neighborhoods in Manhattan.”

Traffic has dropped dramatically throughout the city—by 60 percent in some places, according to the New York Times—making this a seemingly obvious time to open up more streets to space-starved New Yorkers. Other cities have lapped New York on this: Oakland has pedestrianized about 10 percent of its streets for the duration of the pandemic, and similar (albeit smaller) programs are underway in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.

The de Blasio administration previously experimented with a small car-free pilot program on just a few blocks in four of the five boroughs, totaling just about 1.5 miles of space. The affected thoroughfares were closed to cars from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. But citing low usage and NYPD staff shortages, the program was cut short on April 5, some two weeks after it began.

But some argue that the NYPD does not need to be heavily involved in enforcement of open streets programs, and that BID or neighborhood association employees could step in to do that work. “Right now, the NYPD is controlling the conversation,” one BID leader told Streetsblog. “That’s why we got the small and ultimately scrubbed program we got. And it’s why it didn’t work.”