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As New Yorkers seek open space, city will cut short car-free streets pilot

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A program to pedestrianize some city streets to encourage social distancing will end because of “personnel” issues

Major Cities In The U.S. Adjust To Restrictive Coronavirus Measures
Park Avenue is one of the streets that had more pedestrian space during the city’s car-free streets pilot.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Spring has arrived in New York City, and despite the new rules around social distancing that are being observed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic—stay six feet apart from other people, wear a mask, etc.—city residents are still taking advantage of the weather and getting outside.

But there will be slightly less open space for people to utilize in the coming weeks, as the de Blasio administration has chosen to end the pilot program it enacted two weeks ago to pedestrianize some city streets. According to Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for City Hall, the program will be ending because “not enough New Yorkers are utilizing the program to justify its continuation at this time.”

The pilot program created car-free streets on just a few blocks in four of the five boroughs, totaling just about 1.5 miles of space. The affected thoroughfares—Park Avenue between 28th and 34th streets in Manhattan; Bushwick Avenue between Flushing and Johnson avenues in Brooklyn; Grand Concourse between East Burnside Avenue and 184th Street in the Bronx; and 34th Avenue between 73rd and 80th streets in Queens—were closed to cars from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and according to the mayor’s office, about 80 NYPD personnel were dispatched to enforce social distancing on those blocks. According to the NYPD, close to 20 percent of its officers are currently out sick because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many New Yorkers have found in the past month, “social distancing” is all but impossible in the city; while there are 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. (A standard city sidewalk, for example, is at minimum five feet wide, and often only twice that for the largest walkways—hardly giving people enough room to socially distance.)

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo tasked the mayor and the City Council with coming up with ideas to reduce overcrowding in NYC’s open spaces, the Council crafted a plan that recommended redeploying Parks Department personnel and school crossing guards to help enforce social distancing in parks. The plan also called for using the Summer Streets or Play Streets model to close more roadways to cars, and drafting members of neighborhood block associations to maintain barriers.

But during a press conference on Sunday, de Blasio said that his priority right now is “that we focus the NYPD and other enforcement on ensuring there is social distancing in all the places that people have to go,” such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

On NY1 this morning, City Council speaker Corey Johnson said that giving New Yorkers more space via pedestrianized streets is “more important than ever” as the weather gets warmer. “There is far less traffic on the road, we’re telling people unless you’re essential to do your best to stay home,” he said. “It’s better not to have people crammed into parks and on sidewalks.”

And while he acknowledged the staffing challenges the NYPD is currently facing, he also said that “I think we could do something a lot bigger than that without needing that much personnel.” He said the Council will “keep pushing” on the issue.

“I think a lot of people were optimistic that this was just a first step, and that we’d soon see the program expand to more neighborhoods,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo. “We can’t all be chauffeured to a car-free Prospect Park to take a walk. The least Mayor de Blasio could do is close streets that abut other parks so that more New Yorkers can enjoy the same benefits that he does.”