There’s no such thing as a casual stroll in New York anymore. What once served as a cathartic pause from the bustle of city life is now a potentially dangerous endeavor that requires planning and vigilance. Makeshift face mask? Check. Gloves? Check. And the really tricky part: figuring out how to practice social distancing.
Public health officials insist that people remain at least six feet apart from one another to stop the spread of COVID-19, but this can be a Herculean effort when New York’s narrow pathways, alongside parking lanes of up to seven feet, are not designed to meet those needs. The city’s skinny sidewalks are packed with tree pits, benches, and bus shelters, turning a simple walk into a sort of obstacle course for New Yorkers.
A new data visualization, developed by urban planner Meli Harvey, illustrates this problem by mapping sidewalk widths across the five boroughs. The tool, Sidewalk Widths NYC, shows a kaleidoscopic hodgepodge of widths with streets in whole neighborhoods lit up red and orange, warning that social distancing on those footpaths will prove a challenge or downright impossible.
“I think it’s a clear indication of how as cities have grown, the attention to pedestrians has waned,” says Harvey, a computational designer at urban think tank Sidewalk Labs who created the map over the course of a month. “In many ways, this data set is a document of how that planning has changed with that growth.”
Harvey used sidewalk data collected by the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and developed a way to make measurements from that data. The result is an interactive map, which Harvey notes may be missing some streets data, that takes a closer look at where social distancing is and isn’t feasible.
The geographic variety of sidewalk widths, Harvey says, was surprising. She discovered that generally, the more distant a neighborhood is from Manhattan, the more it tends to lack wide sidewalks. She hopes having this tool will help both New Yorkers and decision makers get a better sense of how the city plans and perhaps should be planning its footpaths.
“I really hope it starts more of a discussion about this incredible infrastructure that is sidewalks,” says Harvey, who has been walking and biking the city’s streets for nearly a decade. “We walk down them everyday but we don’t necessarily think about what makes a good sidewalk.”
The average New Yorker probably gave little thought to sidewalk widths before the pandemic, but with the spread of COVID-19, city residents have become hyperaware of how poor planning can hamper social distancing.
“I think this pandemic has made it clear that sidewalks are absolutely vital infrastructure in New York. [Sidewalks are] both the glory of the city and one of its stumbling spots at the moment,” says Elizabeth Goldstein, the president of the Municipal Arts Society. “And I think we’ve discovered that our sidewalk infrastructure is not adequate.”
Public health crises have long led to changes in how we plan and treat city streets. In 19th-century New York, at least 150,000 horses clogged the city’s roads, producing millions of pounds of waste—which eventually led to innovations in sanitation and transportation. In modern New York, the novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the planning deficiencies in our sidewalks and open spaces. It’s an issue that must be tackled with both immediate and long-term solutions.
“We can no longer ignore the health implications of how we plan and design cities,” says Eve Baron, the chair of the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. “It’s so clear just from the impacts of the pandemic that there’s not enough space to live active, healthy lives, and there’s not enough room for people to be outside and feel safe. This is not natural—it’s a man-made problem.”
It’s key for urban public spaces to be flexible and multifunctional in their design, says Baron. And while we may learn planning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important that officials don’t merely plan for challenges cities are facing now but look forward.
“We need to project into the future. Who knows, maybe the next virus we’ll need to be 12 feet apart or 20 feet apart,” says Baron. “I think it’s actually more of a fundamental prospect of rethinking our public space in general and how much of it we give to private vehicles.”
Transportation and planning advocates have urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to relieve some of that pressure by opening streets across New York, thereby making it easier to maintain social distancing while commuting to essential jobs or going grocery shopping. City officials rolled out a pilot program that pedestrianized a cadre of streets (totaling 1.5 miles in a city with 6,000 miles of roadways) in March, but the pilot was killed after 11 days.
The mayor insists that New York is “just profoundly different” than other cities across the country and the globe (Oakland, Milan, and Bogotá, to name a few) that are expanding their pedestrian and biking infrastructure amid the pandemic. But that could soon change with legislation introduced by the City Council this week seeking to potentially sidestep the mayor with the closure of some 75 miles of New York streets.
Tools like Harvey’s map are important because they show how “pedestrians get the leftovers,” says Lee Altman, an architect and urban designer at SCAPE who also teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
“[The map] really visualizes the problem in a tangible way,” says Altman. “The things we need to change we need to change now, not six months from now when we’re back to quote on quote normal.”
Pre-pandemic sidewalks and bike paths were not getting their planning due compared to vehicular spaces, Altman stresses, and that’s catching up with New Yorkers and other city dwellers in potentially deadly ways with COVID-19 in the picture.
For a more equitable distribution of that space in New York, Altman says a holistic look at open and green spaces along with the “networks of circulation” are needed. This would help officials figure out where that space could best be reallocated, and in the meantime, the city can experiment with minimal resources—like using barriers, signage, or other easily deployed, low-tech solutions.
“We have an opportunity to make much more transformative changes and make these really important strides for our city in terms of public infrastructure,” says Altman. “But right now, we’re not really taking advantage of this moment.”