New York banished cars during Covid – could its open streets be preserved? | New York

As an emergency measure for the pandemic, New York City’s banishment of cars from certain streets saw unexpected space open up for pedestrians, restaurant tables and playing children. A campaign backed by the city’s new mayor now aims to permanently wrest dominance away from vehicles and preserve these new outdoor havens.

The alternative vision for America’s largest city demands that 25% of its street space is converted from car use to walkable pedestrian plazas, green space, bus lanes and dedicated cycle paths by 2025. in Los Angeles, an indication of how some Americans are questioning the long-held primacy of cars during a surge in cycling since the start of the pandemic.

A segmented bar chart showing a plan that proposes 25% of the space in New York City currently used for cars should be repurposed for people

Cities should consider a formula of “space minus cars equals quality of life” according to Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. The group, which is heading the 25×25 campaign, cites the climate crisis, air pollution, the death toll from car crashes and community cohesion as urgent reasons to hand room from cars to people.

“If you live in a place where buying a car and spending $10,000 a year on car-related payments is your only way to get around, then your leaders have failed you and your children,” said Harris.

“Using streets to simply move and store cars is not optimizing that space. We just got blinded by the car industry and this belief that we should put an SUV in every garage.”

With its dense neighborhoods, heavy use of public transport and a majority of households not owning a car, New York City would appear an obvious wellspring for car-free space.

And yet three-quarters of street space is given over to cars, according to Transportation Alternatives, with New York’s roads lined with 3m free car-parking spaces, more than one space for every car in the city. Millions of pedestrians have to traverse narrow sidewalks that often are obstructed by the city’s infamous penchant for leaving bags of rubbish for collection by the curb.

Cyclists ride through Central Park on the annual five-borough bike tour. Photograph: Ron Adar/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

“Right now, we give most of New York to cars — but imagine if sidewalks were bigger, if you could bike or quickly take the bus anywhere you wanted, if you didn’t have huge mounds of garbage on every single street,” he said. Harris. “As New Yorkers, we think of ourselves as being tough. But that doesn’t mean we have to live in filth, or that we should fear death or injury every time we cross the street.”

The plan, which would create the equivalent space of 13 Central Parks to be used for 500 miles of dedicated bus lanes, 500 miles of protected bike lanes, new secure garbage containers and widespread community use of car-free roads, has been backed by Eric Adams, the New York City mayor who wobbled to work through car traffic on a bicycle on his first day in office in January and has pledged to make the city greener, both figuratively and literally.

“These are our streets, and it’s about riding, skateboarding, walking,” Adams said last month as he unveiled a new $900m plan for the city’s 6,300 miles of road to improve intersections and upgrade bike paths and bus lane infrastructure. “You know, this is a good place you could come shop, sit down, spend time, and just enjoy the outdoors,” he said at the announcement at a plaza in Brooklyn.”

Two satellite images side-by-side, showing the proposed changes to an intersection in Brooklyn.

Campaigners hope to expand and entrench the re-imagining of streetscapes that occurred in the early stanzas of the pandemic in 2020, where temporary barriers were placed on a clutch of streets to block off cars and ensure social distancing for people. The programme, called Open Streets, has since blossomed across 150 different locations in New York, bringing a dose of communal European-type city space to previously car-choked streets.

“People really embraced the idea, it’s essentially created a park space where people can gather, kids can learn to ride bikes and so much more,” said Carlina Rivera, a New York City council member who introduced the first Open Streets proposal. Rivera is now pushing for the adoption of a “superblock” – a cluster of city blocks where street space is shared and non-resident cars are banned, popularized by Barcelona – in her Manhattan district.

“This current imbalance of space isn’t serving us the way it should,” she said. “There shouldn’t be this supremacy of vehicles in a largely pedestrian city whose residents rely heavily on public transit.”

New Yorkers biking around during car free 'summer streets' along Park Avenue in New York City, on 7 August 2021.
Car-free ‘summer streets’ just south of the MetLife building in Manhattan. Photograph: Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Attitudes about transport among New Yorkers can often seem contradictory – the city has one of the largest subway systems in the world and its most walkable, cycle-friendly neighborhoods are the most desirable, and yet car congestion is so bad that the average traffic speed in midtown Manhattan is under 5mph. Congestion pricing has been bitterly fought, and vocal car advocates successfully stymied attempts to ban vehicles from the city’s two great parks, Central Park and Prospect Park, for decades.

The Open Streets concept was initially opposed by some restaurants, fearful that removing parking spaces would deter customers. Plans to make permanent the most celebrated of the Open Streets, a one-mile stretch of avenue in the borough of Queens, has been attacked in Facebook posts and via a small protest march by residents who want the cars back.

“My daughter sees people drinking and smoking weed,” Gloria Contreras, who co-founded the protest group Resisters United, said in October. “I moved to 34th Avenue because it was a beautiful, quiet residential neighborhood. I never had the issues I have now.”

This sort of desire for untrammeled access and space for cars is common across the US. This year, in Texas, a plan by San Antonio to transfer some lane space from cars to bike paths was halted by the state government, while in Florida, Miami passed an ordinance to demand developers build more parking.

“This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city,” said Manolo Reyes, a Miami city commissioner. “We don’t have a mass transit system, period.” Parking takes up around a third of land area in US cities, with around eight spaces installed for each car across the country.

Joe Biden’s administration has sought to encourage public transport, and even raised the idea of ​​tearing down certain highways, but is still handing out $350bn to the states to upgrade and expand roads for car use. The president, meanwhile, has also championed the adoption of electric vehicles in order to cut planet-heating emissions rather than phase down car use itself.

Allies say this is the most expedient climate approach given many Americans’ fixation upon driving large cars and even 25×25 campaigners concede it will take plenty of time and investment to see a major cultural shift where cars are widely viewed as an equal, orferior , transport option to other ways of getting around.

“The amount of large SUVs and lights trucks being sold now is unsustainable and deadly. We work with families every day who are simply standing on a bus stop or trying to cross the street and their entire world is destroyed forever,” said Harris.

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