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Open Streets for All: NYC’s Transit Future is Up for Grabs

Issue 256

Carrie Klein Jun 12

The bike shop is the new club,” tweeted Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives and now a member of Mayor de Blasio’s Surface Transportation Advisory Council.

Harris was referencing a photo of customers in a socially-distanced line waiting to get into Bicycle Habitat in Chelsea. Habitat and bike stores across the city are running out of all but the most expensive bikes, and orders are delayed until July or August.

The Open Streets Plan is now helping New Yorkers get outside and may also provide a boost to restaurants.

In many parts of the city, bikers and pedestrians now far outnumber the cars on New York’s normally congested streets. According to the city Department of Transportation, March saw 50 percent more bike traffic on bridges between Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens compared to last year. Citi Bike has reported a 67 percent surge in ridership.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio opened 13 new miles of temporary, pedestrian-only streets, bringing the city’s total to 43 miles. The mayor’s Open Streets Plan, announced in late April, also includes nine miles of temporary bike lanes. The plan promises to open 100 miles, or 2 percent, of the city’s 6,000 miles of streets.

After first claiming that the city could not operate safely with open streets, the mayor reversed his position and has since bragged on Twitter that New York now has more car-free streets than any other city in the nation.

But, says Joseph Cutrufo of Transportation Alternatives, “Mayor de Blasio didn’t carry the torch on this. He did it because of overwhelming pressure. We were pushing for open streets in mid-March.”

Many other cities, including Boston, Minneapolis and Oakland, were opening their streets before NYC began to. In early April, Oakland announced it would open 74 miles, or 10 percent of the city’s roads, for pedestrian use.

The Open Streets Plan is now helping New Yorkers get outside and may also provide a boost to restaurants. With more space for outdoor seating, restaurants will be able to increase the amount of customers they can safely serve once the city begins to ease out of its lockdown.

Yet the plan is not serving the city and its boroughs equally. A map published by the Trust for Public Land shows the city has left out low-income and high-density areas most in need of open streets, where communities do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk from home.

Transportation is “health concern and a human right,” the Queens Bike Initiative said in a statement. “Want to know which neighborhoods were hit the hardest by COVID-19? Hint: look for the neighborhoods with the fewest transportation alternatives.”

Last week, Transportation Alternatives, Bronx Health REACH and more than 130 local businesses and community groups launched the Open Streets Coalition. They are calling on de Blasio to expand the Open Streets Program.

“We urge you to think bigger,” the coalition wrote in an open letter to the mayor. “New York City needs Open Streets that serve more purposes and more people” and must “provide space for our restaurants and stores to reopen, and introduce cleaner air in neighborhoods plagued by pollution and disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

Those who can avoid public transit are doing so, but not everyone has that luxury. Citi Bike, a popular alternative to packed subways and buses, currently does not exist in the Bronx or Queens. After seven years in the city, the company this year announced plans to install 100 new stations across northern Manhattan and the south Bronx and has recently added stations outside Lincoln Medical Center and Harlem Hospital.

Its new Workforce Membership Program allows free, year-long membership for healthcare providers, transit employees and first responders. The program, however, cannot benefit the essential workers who live in neighborhoods where Citi Bike stations do not exist.

Transportation Alternatives emphasizes the current crisis is a chance to improve the city’s infrastructure.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild New York as a more just, equitable and resilient city for all residents,” said Danny Harris.

Making New York’s pedestrian infrastructure safer and more accessible is necessary not only for a healthy and just city, but to prepare for future crises. After Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the number of bikers in the city spiked. On the East River bridges, ridership rose by more than 130 percent. In the case of future floods, hurricanes and blackouts, New Yorkers will once again turn to their bikes.

“A resilient city is a city with lots of different forms of transportation,” added Cutrufo. “Once this pandemic is over, we’re not out of the woods entirely. It’s not the end of all crises. Climate disaster is coming, and we have a lot more we need to plan for.”

With far fewer cars on the streets, it’s an incredible opportunity to reassess the city’s transportation plans. The opportunity may not last long, however, with the city set to begin reopening June 8. Numbers show traffic is already picking up. As more New Yorkers resume travel, they are choosing cars over public transit and the transit system is suffering.

The MTA has asked for two government bailouts. It was granted $3.9 billion in the CARES Act in late March, with $2 billion allotted so far.

“A real concern is we could be looking at a future where people feel like they have no choice but to drive,” Cutrufo worries. “That’s not just city residents, but people commuting from New Jersey, Long Island, coming in from the suburbs. Our streets are packed on a normal day.

“The future could be lots more people on bikes and other micro-mobility devices. Or it could be a future where we see gridlock like we’ve seen before.”

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