Will cars rule the roads in post-pandemic New York?
By Winnie Hu and Nate Schweber
When New York went into lockdown five months ago to contain the virus, traffic virtually disappeared, and the mostly deserted streets suddenly became a vast trove of open space in one of the world’s most crowded cities.
But now as New York slowly recovers and cars have started to return, a battle for the 6,000 miles of city streets is just beginning.
Desperate restaurant owners have put out tables and chairs and want to keep them there. Anxious parents see the streets as a solution to crowded indoor classrooms. Cyclists and pedestrians are demanding more safe corridors as their numbers soar. And some virus-wary commuters are avoiding public transit and climbing into cars to protect their health.
Competition for New York’s streets is nothing new — there have been growing calls in recent years to push cars aside — but the pandemic has emboldened more people than ever to stake their claim to a piece of asphalt and force a sweeping reimagining of the urban grid.
Under pressure from advocates for open spaces and the restaurant industry, the city has temporarily excluded cars from more than 70 miles of open streets for social distancing, biking and outdoor dining.
“The long-standing tension between those who see cars as evil and those who see cars as essential has been heightened by the pandemic because usable outdoor space is more crucial than ever,” said Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and design.
City officials have not presented any overall vision or comprehensive plan for redesigning the streets to accommodate more uses and have said they are waiting to see emerging traffic patterns as more people return to work and schools open for some in-person learning.
For now, they have taken a more piecemeal approach, including adding batches of open streets every few weeks and announcing five new busways to speed up service by taking cars off busy arteries. They have also expanded temporary outdoor dining to help restaurants, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said the dining setups would return after the winter.
“I think the fact is we want to keep expanding every conceivable option and alternative, and we’ve seen how effective things like open streets have been,” de Blasio told reporters recently. “We keep expanding that, we keep expanding bike lanes. We want to see how far we can take both of them.”
But critics — many of whom have viewed de Blasio as a pro-driver mayor — have faulted what some describe as the city’s reactionary approach and contend that the moment is ripe for an ambitious blueprint, much like other cities are adopting to permanently redraw the streetscape.
“I think we’re missing a huge opportunity,” said Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former city transportation official. “This is the time to reconfigure the streets. Traffic will fill however much — or however little — street space it’s allotted. Now is the time to literally redraw the lines.”
Other cities have taken bolder steps. London has embarked on a plan to accommodate a surge in pedestrians and cyclists by creating new walking and biking routes, widening sidewalks and limiting traffic on residential streets — some of which could become permanent. And in Paris, officials are moving to add more than 400 miles of new bike lanes across the metro region.
In New York, the growing conflict over the use of the streets will not simply end with the pandemic, Kayden said, since elected leaders, community activists, transportation experts and others who have long sought to repurpose roads for uses other than cars “will not want to give up their newly captured territory.”
Roberto Perez Rosado, 72, and his neighbors in park-starved Jackson Heights, Queens, are vowing to fight to keep a promenade that was opened on 34th Avenue during the pandemic.
“If they take it away we will be petitioning, we will be going to meetings, we will be active on the streets,” he said.
Drivers are pushing back, too. Kenny Otano, an ironworker, said that dividing up the streets has made traffic worse.
“One lane is thrown out for buses, half a lane is thrown out for bikes, and the worst thing is the restaurants,” said Otano, 50. “It creates more traffic. Five lanes becomes three.”
Leslie Andre Howard, 35, a contractor from Queens, has a kidney condition and has been driving to work because he does not want to take the subway during the outbreak. His blue minivan, he said, “feels safer and you’re more in control.”
Some cyclists and transportation advocates have criticized the city for creating a series of disconnected open streets instead of building a comprehensive network of continuous routes and public spaces. The result has been confusion and conflict at times among groups trying to use the same space, including bike lanes blocked by outdoor restaurant seating.
City officials said they have moved more quickly than they have been given credit for to make significant changes, including expanding outdoor dining to every corner of the city.
“We’ve used this crisis to make sweeping and popular changes to the urban landscape,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for de Blasio. “There’s always more to do. But we’ve responded to New Yorkers’ calls for more public space, and we’re excited to keep going.”
City officials said they were also monitoring traffic and were prepared to take strict measures if the gridlock becomes acute, including restricting vehicles entering the city by their license plate numbers or requiring cars to have at least two occupants. Vehicle occupancy restrictions were imposed after the 9/11 terror attack in lower Manhattan.
At Roof Top Republica, there is outdoor seating for 100 customers under twinkling lights, three times more than inside the small Dominican restaurant. The owner, Victor Sanchez, 52, said he is selling more meals than before the pandemic.
“I think it should be a permanent thing,” he said. “There’s going be a fight for the streets, definitely.”