On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will close 40 miles of streets to auto traffic, with a goal of closing up to 100 miles, for pedestrian use.
The announcement came a day after New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson – who has been pushing for street closures for weeks – threatened to get Hizzoner’s nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo to shut down a portion of the city’s streets. Alternative transportation activists and sympathetic media outlets have been pushing for this policy, and harshly criticizing de Blasio for resisting it.
On April 17, the council introduced a bill to close down 75 miles of the city’s roads to allow people to move around the city without violating social distancing measures. “The City Council has been absolutely right to say, ‘Let’s keep looking for solutions here,’” de Blasio said on Monday. New York City has approximately 8,000 miles of streets, so it’s hard to imagine that 75 or even 100 miles of street closures will mean that most New Yorkers are walking distance from a newly pedestrianized road.
The city had initially closed four streets, Bushwick Avenue, Park Avenue and 34th Avenue in Queens and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for pedestrian use in March. But the program was cancelled after 11 days due to enforcement issues, according to de Blasio. "The problem with the additional street closures is you have to attach enforcement to them," the mayor said on April 6. "If we don't attach enforcement to them, we're very concerned they become new gathering points and we do not want to seem to be solving one problem by creating a new one."
Many of the city’s sidewalks are too narrow for New Yorkers to safely socially distance from one another outside. Other cities across the globe, from Boston to Bogotá, have already instituted pedestrianization plans. As the weather begins to warm up and more of the city’s residents are becoming antsy indoors there are concerns that sidewalks and parks will soon become overcrowded.
"If we're going to adhere to physical distancing guidelines while we're getting exercise and fresh air, we need more open space,” Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo said in a statement. “The devil is in the details, but it's good to see the mayor is coming around on this."
About those details: Here’s what you need to know about the city’s new plan to close some of its roads off to cars:
How will the city’s street closures work?
The city will begin closing 40 miles of streets to vehicular traffic over the next month. However, de Blasio said that it will ultimately be aiming to close up to 100 miles of streets – 25 more miles than the council originally proposed closing. The street closures are expected to be similar to those that went into effect around Rockefeller Center to combat crowding during the winter holidays. The streets will only remain closed while the state’s lockdown measures are still in effect.
The mayor has not specified which city streets will be closed but has said that his administration, the city’s Transportation Department, the City Council and the New York Police Department will determine the city’s street closure plans, including which streets will be closed. According to the mayor, the city will prioritize closing 60 miles of streets in and around parks, as well as neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest throughout the COVID-19 crisis – which seems odd, since the people who most need access to pedestrianized streets are those who don’t live near parks. "(We are) very concerned about the streets around parks,” de Blasio said. “Often times we are seeing that immediate area getting very crowded. Those streets adjacent to parks are an obvious opportunity to open up more space. We are going to work together to figure out how we are going to do that."
The city will also look at closing 10 miles of streets run by local block associations and business improvement districts and 10 miles of bike lanes for pedestrians. Some streets will be closed entirely to vehicular traffic, while sidewalks will be expanded on others, de Blasio said.
What about first responder vehicles, bus lanes and deliveries?
The city has yet to address how it will account for first responder vehicles, such as NYPD vehicles, fire trucks and ambulances, as well as vehicles making deliveries and buses. The Council, however, is committed to making sure that these services are not disrupted by the city’s street closures. “The Council will work to ensure streets are opened in ways that do not impede bus travel,” Jennifer Fermino, Council Communications Director, told City & State in an email. “Open streets will allow for essential deliveries and for first responders and emergency vehicles to continue doing their heroic work.”
Eric Goldwyn, a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute, told City & State that reorganizing its streets to make way for essential vehicles shouldn’t be too difficult.
“If you have two lanes going in each direction on an avenue, just take one lane on each side and leave the rest (for essential vehicles in the middle),” Goldwyn said. “It's not that hard to solve the problem … Our streets are not older than the streets in Barcelona or more serpentine and circuitous than those in London or Paris. If they can figure out how to do it, certainly we can.”
What are the drawbacks?
Aside from the risk of impeding deliveries and emergency response for residents along the corridors closed to traffic, it seems possible that pedestrianized streets will draw so many walkers from elsewhere that they too eventually become crowded.
De Blasio had previously claimed that the need to divert scarce policing resources to enforcement was also a problem. "If you create a situation where there are not protections and is not enforcement, you could put people in danger," the mayor said. "Obviously, the goal of an open street or safe street kind of structure is that people can enjoy it, and experience the virtue of it and the social distancing without having a new danger from vehicles."
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