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How NYC can create pedestrian-friendly streets during a pandemic

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We asked experts how NYC could open streets. Here’s what they had to say.

Once bustling thoroughfares are at a virtual standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Max Touhey

Whether it’s going to a grocery store, popping into a pharmacy, or commuting to an essential job, New Yorkers have little choice but to venture out during the COVID-19 pandemic. And when they do, it’s a socially distanced dance: crisscrossing streets to avoid other people, pausing on stoops or in driveways to let people pass, or just outright walking in the street while hugging the curb as much as possible.

The obvious thought while traversing this labyrinth of parked cars and the potentially sick: Why not open city streets so pedestrians can use them safely? New York City has missed its chance to be a leader on the issue, but why not at least follow in the footsteps of other U.S. cities like Oakland, Boston, Minneapolis, and open miles of road to residents?

In March, New York City briefly experimented with a small car-free pilot program on a handful of blocks in four of the five boroughs, totaling just 1.5 miles of space. (Oakland, in contrast, cleared 74 miles of streets.) But citing low usage and NYPD staff shortages, the program was cut short on April 5, only two weeks after it began.

Mayor Bill de Blasio asked the NYPD and the Department of Transportation to analyze the Oakland plan, but drew the conclusion that “we are just profoundly different than those other cities.”

“I do not believe it will work, period,” de Blasio told reporters at a recent press conference.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson begs to differ. Johnson and Council Member Carlina Rivera plan to introduce a bill this week setting a goal of closing 75 miles of streets for pedestrians and cyclists. The move would not only take advantage of the dive in traffic across the five boroughs, but would also provide a safe way for New Yorkers to socially distance as the weather warms and the itch to abandon cramped apartments intensifies.

“The Council has spent nearly a month pushing for open streets so New Yorkers can get fresh air and exercise during this pandemic while social distancing. We want to work collaboratively with the administration to make this happen, but it’s important enough that we are willing to take legislative action,” said Johnson. “Other cities around the world have demonstrated that this is doable. We can as well.”

In a March 23 letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Johnson called for using areas already identified through the Summer Streets program and other initiatives to swiftly shutter thoroughfares across the city. He—along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Members Rivera, Keith Powers, and Margaret Chin—has also called for a large swath of Broadway to go car-free for the duration of the novel coronavirus crisis.

De Blasio maintains that the city must “make sure that anything we do with our streets keeps in mind the following: that we do not put any New Yorkers in danger.” But transportation advocates believe there are several models that could be adapted to suit New York. We asked four experts to outline possible solutions. Here’s what they had to say.

Meera Joshi, Principal and New York General Manager at Sam Schwartz Engineering

“The original pedestrianized street, the block party, was created by residents pushed by density and lack of easy access to public space. These must remain the primary deciding factors for today’s open streets decisions. A citywide, data-driven approach will show us across communities where there are areas of need. On top of this, planners can layer other salient factors—like the need to maintain bus, truck, and emergency routes; the location of nearby schools, hospitals, and other institutions; and proximity to grocery stores and other essential businesses.

Like the organic nature of the block party, pedestrianized streets can take multiple forms, such as widened bike lanes, expanded sidewalks, and seasonal closures. The hardest part, as we’ve seen with other significant interventions in the cityscape, is gaining public trust and acceptance for change. The first few streets will be highly scrutinized, but once the inherent vitality of reclaimed public space is apparent, you will see them popping up throughout our city.”

Sidewalks are crammed as New Yorkers struggle to socially distance on narrow streets.
Max Touhey

Doug Gordon, safe-streets activist

“One of the easiest and most equitable ways to create open streets for people would be to first focus on streets adjacent to public schools. Every neighborhood has multiple school buildings, some of which are currently being used as meal distribution centers for kids and adults. Crossing guards, as essential as ever, are already stationed at many of these locations during daytime hours and could place traffic cones or other barriers at intersections and enforce rules that limit cars and allow people space to spread out. Should emergency vehicles or delivery trucks need to access the street, a crossing guard would be there to move the barriers.

This idea could be extended to streets next to now-closed playgrounds. Shutting down playgrounds was the right and necessary thing to do, but it left many city kids with little access to open space for safe activities like biking, skipping rope, playing catch with a sibling or just running around. For every playground that’s been closed, the Parks Department should work with the Department of Transportation to identify a nearby street that isn’t considered essential to the transportation network and take it offline with wooden barriers or traffic cones. That could be accomplished with little more than one or two Parks employees per location.”

Rachel Weinberger, senior transportation fellow at the Regional Plan Association

“On average, cities devote 30 to 40 percent of their land area to the automobile, you have to look at that and think, ‘Is there a potential to repurpose that to meet some of the other demands?’

I think the city should start by identifying areas where people need to be able to get out of their houses, and that probably is in medium density neighborhoods. There was an objective to have a park within a 10-minute walk of everybody’s home. That’s a very high level definition. So I think the city needs a more robust definition of what it wants that to look like. How many acres of park per person within a 10-minute walk? And then look where parks do exist, figure out where they need to be, and then turn streets into temporary parks in those areas where that resource lacks.

It’s an especially fantastic moment to do that because the use of the streets by automobiles, transportation, and mobility is so reduced. Then when the economy starts to return and there’s more car traffic, we can negotiate those terms. That could mean making more transit priority streets so we have more efficient mobility; it could mean keeping pedestrianized streets because it turns out we can satisfy all of our mobility needs; or [we can] redesign some of those streets as shared streets. It’s sort of impractical to completely close off any street to all traffic: We still need emergency services, we still need delivery, we need sanitation pick up. We need to be creative in how we do this.”

Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives

“There has to be a vision for how streets can be closed but opened up for walking and biking that also prioritizes the ability for people to spend time outside and do it safely. For areas that lack open space and parks, this is a way to achieve that. It has to be done with end destinations in mind. There are many food deserts in the city so if there’s only one grocery store there needs to be a safe passage for people to reach that destination as well as transit.

We do not need a heavy police presence; other cities have shown it can be done very simply with barricades, signage, and some cones. One way to do this is to expand and expedite the city’s block party system. Occasionally on some of those you have a police presence at the end of the street, but very often it’s achieved by just having a barricade at the end of the street with signage. That model could easily be applied here.

It can also mean repurposing one or more vehicle travel lanes. Broadway is ripe for it. .... Another option is the marathon route in New York City. It’s the marathon route, in part, because each street on that route has been identified already to have limited negative impact on traffic flow when they’re closed down. That’s a route where the assessment has already been done where it will have limited impact.

A third is closing down entire areas. For example, for years there’s been talk of closing down the Financial District to through traffic. You have very narrow streets, narrower sidewalks, heavy, heavy pedestrian traffic, limited vehicle presence (but of what’s there it’s packed bumper to bumper), and these winding roads that date back several hundred years. And so that and other areas where people commute to, and where there’s a heavy retail presence and foot traffic, like downtown Flushing and Rockefeller Center—those are areas that the city needs to have a vision for. Closing off larger areas provides more bang for the buck in terms of being able to plug a few entrance points and then you’ve closed off multiple streets, so it’s not as resource-intensive as the NYPD might want to make it.”