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NYC will open up to 100 miles of streets to pedestrians

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The move will help New Yorkers socially distance amid the coronavirus pandemic

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After weeks of expressing skepticism about opening streets to pedestrians and cyclists, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that he is committed to closing up to 100 miles of streets to promote social distancing during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Under an agreement with the City Council, the de Blasio administration will open up at least 40 miles of streets in May, with the ultimate goal of 100 miles in the coming months. The undertaking will also roll out temporary bike lanes and expand sidewalks, he said.

For weeks the mayor has resisted calls from transportation advocates and elected officials to transform swaths of the city’s streets into havens for pedestrians and cyclists, calling New York “profoundly different” from other cities across the country and the globe making similar moves.

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.) The program was cut short on April 5, however, with de Blasio citing low usage and NYPD staff shortages—ending only 11 days after its launch. But the mayor has faced pressure to reverse course from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who introduced a bill last week to open up 75 miles of asphalt.

On Monday, the mayor said that his travels across the city, and his exercise jaunts in Prospect Park, helped convince him that social distancing on the city’s narrow sidewalks and in its parks will only become more difficult as New Yorkers flee their cramped apartments during the warmer months seeking fresh air and sunshine.

“The question has been coming up more and more, ‘When it gets warmer what is it going to look like?’” de Blasio told reporters at a press conference. “Everything I saw in parks, but beyond, made me feel we had to help people continue to be able to social distance and that a lot of the nexus would be around the parks as it got warmer.”

The City Council said it will work with the city to select streets using five categories: Up to 60 miles of streets within and adjacent to parks; up to 20 miles of streets identified in consultation with local police precincts, community boards, and “other partners”; up to 10 miles of streets managed by community-oriented groups such as local Business Improvement Districts, block associations, and other civic groups; up to 2.5 miles of “widened sidewalks”; and up to 10 miles of protected bike lanes.

City Hall says the new bike lanes will mainly be focused in the city’s “commercial core” and that sidewalks with high pedestrian traffic could be expanded by placing concrete barriers to extend those spaces out into parking lanes or lanes of traffic, depending on the location.

Streets that are opened will only be in effect for the duration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pause order, with the exception of bike lanes, according to the Council. The Council says it will begin conversations with communities on identifying streets in the coming weeks.

“As the weather gets nicer and this unprecedented crisis stretches on longer, we need to do everything in our power to keep our neighbors safe and healthy,” said Johnson. “This announcement is a great starting point for the ongoing conversation about how we share our public spaces during this pandemic and in a post-coronavirus future.”

The open streets plan comes two days after the New York Times’ editorial board urged city officials to create public spaces for New Yorkers to safely venture outside during the summer, and after Johnson warned that he would bypass the mayor and work with Cuomo on an open streets plan if the mayor did not take action.

Transportation advocates who have long-urged the city to open streets lauded the announcement as a critical step to improving how New Yorkers socially distance.

“If we’re going to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, we need space to stretch our legs and get some fresh air,” said Joe Cutrufo with Transportation Alternatives. “The devil is in the details, but it’s good to see the mayor is coming around on this.”