Today’s City Council hearing on Open Streets legislation sponsored by Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Carlina Rivera introduced on Wednesday, was another show of just how absolutely disinterested the city’s Departments of Transportation and Police seem to be in opening streets and allowing people more space to get to work, get groceries, get to doctors appointments, walk their dogs, and spend some time outdoors while maintaining the required social distancing.
Doctor after doctor encourages exercise and time outdoors to maintaining mental and physical health, and some of them testified at today’s hearing. Healthcare workers are frustrated in their efforts to save lives when they see a lack of social distancing in overcrowded parks – yet people hardly have an opportunity to practice safe social distancing because of our woefully inadequate sidewalk infrastructure.
The status quo is not safe. It is not safe because so many people are cooped up and barely holding it together in tiny, overcrowded apartments, where too often someone is also attempting to self isolate. Tensions are mounting, and the city has already spoken up about the rise in domestic violence. With warmer weather coming (next week finally promises some 60F+ days!!) the pressure to spend some time outside will mount, and come summer people will come out. With playgrounds and beaches closed and likely remaining closed, what are we to do?
Our city’s sidewalks were already too narrow — many of them cut back in the 20th Century to make more space for cars. Even before coronavirus pandemic hit us, they were overcrowded in busy locations even when wide, and too narrow for a parent with a stroller and an elderly person with a walker to pass without touching pretty much everywhere else. Add to that the common obstacles – construction equipment, garbage stored on the sidewalks, food carts, bicycle stands and not an insignificant number of cars – all reduce space available for safe passing.
The objection to opening the streets to pedestrians and bicyclists seems to come from the top – our Mayor – who insists that reckless drivers will kill a lot more people if streets are opened and not heavily policed. Yet somehow ConEdison cones have effectively been closing off streets for decades, no enforcement necessary.
I do not believe any driver is going out there to deliberately kill another person. Streets are made safer by design – when there is a critical mass of people and bicyclists on them, visual markers, drivers slow down, and I speak as someone who lives in Brooklyn and drives as well as bicycles.
The legislation, Int 1933-2020, introduced on Wednesday requires the city to open just 75 miles of roadway to pedestrians and bicycles – 1% of the miles in the city. NYPD said it did not have the manpower and it would be impossible, DOT echoed that and said NYC is so unique no existing plan at other cities can be reasonably applied. Neither department came prepared with any ideas to facilitate public health and safety through improving the street infrastructure or opening the roadway to more users.
DOT pointed out that “New York City is the densest city in the country, with around 27,000 people per square mile citywide, and almost 70,000 people per square mile in Manhattan, compared to 7,000 people per square mile in 3 Oakland. The streets that will be closed in Oakland are typically low-density, single- or multifamily residential streets, where overcrowding is not a major concern.”
But what if those 70,000 residents all walked out of their apartments within that square mile?
When councilmembers asked for data, like – how much of the city’s sidewalks are wide enough, or how many crossing guards are currently not working officials did not know. But that information is easily and publicly available here, Curbed reported yesterday. What the map shows is that social distancing on Brooklyn sidewalks is for the most part quite impossible.
As Speaker Johnson said in his opening remarks:
“I agree with the Mayor that New York City is exceptional. We are the greatest city in the world. But we shouldn’t use New York exceptionalism as an excuse for settling. We should be trying to do more. To do it better. It can’t mean that we don’t even try.
New York is unique, but I will not accept that cities around the world like Oakland and Paris and Milan and Boston can overcome challenges that we can’t. New York should be leading.
And I don’t think we should blame New Yorkers for government’s failure to innovate. I don’t buy the idea that our drivers can’t adjust. I have more faith in New Yorkers. New Yorkers rise to the occasion. That’s who we are. We’ve done it before. And I know we will again.”
It took almost half the city’s parents to withdraw kids from school (along with threats from the Teachers Union to sue the city) to close the schools as the pandemic was surging. We now need more of the streets to get around safely, many of us will not be in the position to be able to afford to use the mass transit once the pandemic is over and will need to rely on bicycles to get to work. Right now the streets are empty, and sidewalks are not.
When we asked Speaker Johnson for his reaction to today’s hearing, he had this to say:
“Today’s testimony from the administration was disappointing, but I remain convinced that they will see the light on this issue and work with us to create the space New Yorkers need. This needs to happen soon though, so even if they don’t, the Council will continue to work with advocates and community groups to open streets to cyclists and pedestrians. New York City is the greatest city in the world. I reject the notion that this is beyond our capacity.”
It looks like it is up to us to start using the streets the way we need to keep on living in this city.
For inspiration, here are some excellent examples of what can be done with very little investment from around the world:
The lanes can even be installed while maintaining social distancing: