‘We can use this moment to position ourselves in ways that best serve New Yorkers—those who have stayed, those who will return, and the newcomers who will power New York’s next cycle of growth.’
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the tides in urban mobility. When New York hit “pause” that gave us all a moment to reflect on how and why we move around the city. Streets emptied of cars; subways and buses emptied of riders. As quiet overtook New York we heard more birds and the air was cleaner than it had been in decades.
With so few cars on the streets in those early days, driving was fun again. It was fast and it was easy. It was also dangerous, unsustainable, and fleeting. Traffic deaths soared.
The constraints of COVID have put into stark relief the competing demands for street space. Schools are using streets to hold classes. Restaurateurs and their patrons use the space for dining. Bicycling has increased as New Yorkers find new ways to travel under new conditions. People have used street space in dozens of creative ways.
Unchecked, streets are now approaching pre-COVID levels of peak-hour gridlock. Each day several people are injured by cars; on average, the city sees two or three pedestrian deaths each week, and about two cyclist fatalities each month. Though the mayor’s office has had a Vision Zero policy since 2014—aspiring to achieve zero annual traffic fatalities or serious injuries—that goal remains stubbornly out of reach.
Instead of returning to what we had, we have a chance to do better. We can use this moment to position ourselves in ways that best serve New Yorkers—those who have stayed, those who will return, and the newcomers who will power New York’s next cycle of growth.
On our streets, this will require that we provide the same accommodations and incentives to sustainable, space-efficient transport that we provide to cars. There are 10,000 miles of car lanes in NYC and an estimated 3 million parking spaces. By contrast, there are only 1,240 miles of bike lanes and only 500 miles are protected. Our city streets are designed for cars even when more than half of New York households do not own cars.
Other cities are making meaningful safety progress via street redesign. These cities have seen a proliferation of bicycling and other two-wheeled mobility, including e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-mopeds. In the COVID era, Paris accelerated construction of 400 miles of bike lanes, and Bogotá added a 52-kilometer emergency bike network in March, increasing their network by 15 percent, to protect essential workers. Oslo made headlines last year for being the first major city to have zero traffic fatalities. And London has seen pedestrian and cyclist deaths decrease each year even with increasing ridership.
New York can achieve similar results with policy change and infrastructure investment. Regional Plan Association’s recent Five Borough Bikeway Plan, which calls for a 425-mile connected, protected cycling network, is an example of where we might start.
A transition to safer, more equitable streets will require the city to embrace a more balanced approach to regulating electric micromobility as well. A year or two ago, New York was caught flat-footed by the emergence of e-scooter companies like Bird, Spin and Lime. The city struggled to safely and effectively integrate these services onto our streets. While cities like Los Angeles and Washington DC embraced e-scooters, clocking tens of millions of rides, New York threw up the red tape.
To date, micromobility has been held to a significantly higher standard than private cars in New York. It took several years of organizing by groups like Make The Road New York to legalize electric bikes, which for years have powered our City’s delivery workers. Meanwhile, full-size SUVs—which in recent years have accounted for a growing portion of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities— roll on, unabated.
Shared mopeds, like Revel, have become a reliable mode for essential workers seeking socially-distanced transport options. These lightweight, speed-capped vehicles have been operating in New York since 2018 and have been popular in places like Northern Manhattan and the Bronx, where Citibike does not yet operate and the subway is often hard to access.
In a time where fatal crashes are up across the city, three Revel users tragically lost their lives, the first fatalities seen on the service. The company paused operations and has since adopted stringent safety protocols. High standards and skepticism are prudent when introducing new technology, but the standards should be roughly equivalent to those for existing modes.
We applaud the de Blasio administration for their recent progress—including reducing the city’s speed limit and expanding the speed camera program—but the administration and future New York leaders must take significant and decisive steps now to invite more bicycles and micromobility options to make our streets safer and healthier for all road users.
It is time to stop privileging one mode over the others and align our infrastructure to balance the needs of auto and non-auto users alike. Replacing private vehicle trips is essential to meeting our climate and safety goals, with the added benefit of providing critically needed space for social distancing on our streets.
As COVID changes transportation in our city, let’s make sure it changes for the better.
Rachel Weinberger is a Senior Fellow for Transportation with Regional Plan Association, and the Founding Principal of Weinberger & Associates, LLC.