To have or not to have permanent open streets

Transportation Alternatives makes case for turning pandemic-era program into something 24/7

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It really wasn’t that long ago — just a few weeks — when the Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias, animals of all spots and stripes, and Marvel Comics characters ambled down the streets in search of treats.

While traditions like Halloween will likely never get old, it also begged a question that gained prominence last year during the coronavirus pandemic: What if some streets were always open to people, and only people?

“I like open streets,” said Craig Sachs, an avid cyclist out of Spuyten Duyvil who has now pedaled through what he says is 80 percent of the Bronx. One of his favorite open streets is 34th Street in Queens, “where they have a huge open street during day hours, and people come out and relax.”

 

Born from the pandemic

New York City’s Open Streets program was likely its most popular in Summer 2020 when much of the city was locked down, cars were off the road, and people needed as much space as possible to get outside and breathe some fresh air while still maintaining social distance.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan was to close a number of streets to cars for certain periods of the day, creating concrete and blacktop open spaces just steps away from many neighbors cooped up inside their homes.

Closer to home, those areas included West 231st Street between Sedgwick Avenue and Kingsbridge Terrace near Marie Curie High School for Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions. Another open street was created 12 hours a day on Tibbett Avenue between West 238th and West 232nd streets.

But as the coronavirus — and the lockdown — retreated from the city, so did the open streets. In fact, transit activist group Transportation Alternatives says of all the open streets that remain in the city, more than 66 percent are found in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Bronx makes up barely 2 percent of what’s left.

Now Transportation Alternatives not only wants to get the city back toward its goal of providing 100 miles of open streets, the group wants to make them available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everywhere.

Relying on hundreds of volunteers, Transportation Alternatives found less than half of the city’s open streets still actually operating a year later, accounting for just 24 of New York’s more than 6,300 miles of streets.

The advocacy group argues that “permanent open streets can seed a paradigm shift in transportation” by reducing traffic accidents and address inequity, all while meeting climate goals.

 

A chance to enhance, save lives

“Think about asthma,” Transportation Alternatives spokesman Cory Epstein said. “Adding an open street in a neighborhood where there’s lots of children and high rates of asthma is a way to remove congestion, air pollution.”

It’s a concept that Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer referred to last year as “pedestrianization.”

And it’s the lives of more pedestrians that could be saved. Researchers with the organization claim the number of cyclist injuries, for example, dropped on designated open streets, even as similar injuries were up citywide. Even injuries to motorists and pedestrians fell on open streets compared to just regular streets.

But the city’s transportation department — responsible for operating the program — has pushed back on Transportation Alternatives’ study. City officials cite what they describe are a few errors in the group’s data, including its claim there are 47 miles of active open streets in the city as of the end of October, not 27 as Transportation Alternatives claims.

But DOT has found some common ground with the activist group: Officials there say they, too, would like to see something a little less temporary.

“Now we are taking the necessary steps to make this program permanent and sustainable in the long-term,” DOT spokesman Seth Stein told The Riverdale Press in a statement.

This means neighborhoods with active civic groups that originally applied to the Open Streets program could have the city’s support in ensuring it never goes away.

The city says it’s also reaching out to neighborhoods without community groups or business improvement districts, helping them create their own open streets.

The Kingsbridge Riverdale Van Cortlandt Development Corp., participated in open streets by managing a portion of Johnson Avenue between West 235th and 236th streets. But that program has now ended, and Johnson — previously home to an annual block festival — no longer is an open street.

The contract’s requirements ultimately asked for too much of a financial commitment, said executive director Tracy McCabe Shelton. The business development nonprofit has struggled financially in the wake of the pandemic.

“At a minimum, you had to have staff members there throughout the day to monitor the barriers, in case those needed to be moved,” Shelton said. “Then you also needed to do trash collection and all of that stuff. It was a bit of a hardship. That’s why we’re not really in a position to do it anymore. We just don’t have the resources, funding, capacity, staff.”

One group of Manhattan residents formed a group solely to manage their open streets on East Third Street between avenues A and B. It’s now home to open art strolls, live jazz performances and even recent Halloween festivities, thanks to the efforts of the Loisaida Open Streets Community Coalition.

 

Dedicating city dollars

This is where investment is vital, Transportation Alternatives advocates said. Right now, Open Streets relies too heavily on volunteers and funding by cash-strapped local groups. Bringing in some city funding or even city employees to run the open streets is a much better approach, Epstein said.

“We are going to continue urging the next administration to make sure these groups are receiving funding and support,” he added, “so they can continue this program.”

And it’s not just the lack of open streets that plagues the Bronx right now, but also the condition neighbors find them in. More than 80 percent of the borough’s open streets lack barriers, Transportation Alternatives says, making these areas especially dangerous for those who venture out to use them.

The buzz about open streets has basically died down in this neck of the woods, said Community Board 8 district manager Ciara Gannon. Even last year, only one open street was even brought to the board’s attention.

“We received very little complaints about Tibbett, because it is residential,” Gannon said.

How many is “very little” — a handful? “Less than that,” Gannon added.

For Sachs, he believes once the ethics around cars and pedestrian safety evolve — maybe in another several years — permanent open streets won’t seem as blasphemous to people. Especially those who own cars. 

“Right now it might seem radical,” he said.

Still, strides are being taken. Or at least announced. This past June, de Blasio announced an additional 68 miles of open streets in the city. And Mayor-elect Eric Adams also has been vocal in his support of more open streets, pedestrian plazas and bicycle lanes.

As of now, fewer than 250 open streets remain open, according to the city — if not managed by DOT or the New York Police Department, then by community partners and neighbors.

But more people could step up to the plate and apply to the program, KRVC’s executive director said.

“It’s definitely an undertaking,” Shelton said. “The biggest thing is just finding groups that are going to be doing it.”

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