‘The limited Open Streets we have are not distributed equitably. There are no active Open Streets in any of the six community boards that have the fewest residents living near parks. Of all the active Open Street miles in operation today, only 2.2 percent are in the Bronx.’
In the early days of the pandemic, New York began closing streets to cars to provide space for social distancing—we called these “Open Streets.” This was an emergency measure, created in response to the catastrophic conditions of early 2020. As Mayor de Blasio said, “It was created out of a crisis. It was created out of pain. But something beautiful came of it and something we learned together: we could do what we hadn’t imagined before.”
When we opened our streets to people, we learned that they could be our gyms and our community centers, our restaurants and our playgrounds. It was those lessons that inspired the New York City Council to overwhelmingly pass Intro 1933-A, legislation making the Open Streets program permanent, expanding it in underserved neighborhoods, and requiring the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create and operate at least 20 Open Streets distributed equitably across the five boroughs.
That legislation went into effect last month, and while we eagerly wait to see how DOT will meet the demands of the law, new research from Transportation Alternatives indicates an opportunity to do even more for this program in the next Council with the new administration. We must make sure the benefits of Open Streets are extended to all New Yorkers—especially those in neighborhoods most harmed by traffic violence, carbon emissions, and a lack of open space.
This summer, hundreds of volunteer surveyors visited every Open Street in New York City. TA’s new report—Open Streets Forever: The Case for Permanent 24/7 Open Streets—shares what those surveyors found: that the city of New York has not yet upheld its end of the promise of Open Streets. Surveyors found temporary infrastructure failing and major inequities in how Open Streets were planned and operated citywide.
Only 46 percent of Open Streets planned by DOT were found by surveyors to be active. This is equal to 24.01 miles of Open Streets in operation in 2021, well short of the 100 miles promised.
The limited Open Streets we have are not distributed equitably. There are no active Open Streets in any of the six community boards that have the fewest residents living near parks. Of all the active Open Street miles in operation today, only 2.2 percent are in the Bronx. In fact, 84 percent of listed Open Streets in the Bronx were found to be non-operational. This is a disservice to a borough with a long history of disinvestment. Comparatively, Manhattan residents have access to 1,409 percent more miles of active open streets than Bronx residents. We demand Open Streets equity.
Despite these current challenges, where Open Streets succeed—often thanks to the tireless effort of local volunteers—they are injury-reducing, economy-saving, popular, desired, and truly beloved by New Yorkers. While cyclist injuries increased 20 percent citywide, cyclist injuries decreased 17 percent on Open Streets.
Consider this first-person account from a visitor to the Avenue B Open Street in the East Village: “It’s so invigorating to see people strolling and looking around in our neighborhood, rather than just passing through. The Open Streets movement promotes truly experiencing that ‘NYC-is-all-about-the-people’ feeling.” Or how Lonnie Hardy, the organizer of the Jennings Street Open Street in the South Bronx, explains the benefits of providing this program for her neighbors: “We can actually save money and save lives by providing something for the children, as well as the adults, to have something to do that is positive.” Unfortunately, due to lack of available funding, the Jennings Street Open Street recently had to close.
Still, though legislation only went into effect last month, there is undeniable tension underwriting the Open Streets program citywide: Open Streets are amazing, but as they are made permanent, Open Streets must be better.
Many of the current problems with the pilot program—disappearing barricades, cars invading the space, inequities in planning and execution—can be traced to the fact that Open Streets are protected with slim barricades and require dismantling every night. It is time to make our Open Streets permanent 24/7 fixtures of the streetscape, designed with infrastructure to protect pedestrians.
To create permanent 24/7 Open Streets, the city can and should explore narrowing the entrance to Open Streets with curb extensions, bike parking, bioswales, and street trees, investing in a system of permanent and semi-permanent bollards and barricades that discourage through-traffic, and lowering traffic speeds to five miles per hour. With these simple changes, we can deliver new, protected open space that will reduce traffic violence, pollution, and public health impacts while providing flood-mitigating climate resiliency and transformative access to active living in every neighborhood. It will take a lot of hard work and collaboration to do this well and do it quickly, but we can give New Yorkers this future while also ensuring safe passage for emergency and sanitation services.
But we can’t just equip current Open Streets with permanent infrastructure and call it done: we need to ensure the program is expanded to neighborhoods that need fresh air, safe streets, and open space the most. The next administration should work over the winter to proactively reach out to community organizations, religious institutions, tenant leaders, and schools in areas that currently do not have access to Open Streets and get their input on how the program can be implemented in a way that best serves the needs of the neighborhood.
New Open streets should be community-led, with support from the city to make them successful. Relying solely on volunteer organizers is a recipe for inequality, where privileged neighborhoods are more easily able to rely upon the availability of free labor or crowdfunded donations from neighbors. In areas where local groups do not have capacity to staff an Open Street, the next administration must supply staff and management assistance so local residents can enjoy the fantastic benefits that this program brings.
Expanding Open Streets equitably will be life changing for so many New Yorkers, and almost guaranteed to be popular. This summer, the DOT talked to people visiting an Open Street on Broadway: 81 percent of people surveyed said they wanted it to be permanent. In Prospect Heights, 86 percent felt the same. In Inwood, 69 percent felt the same.
Given the devastating (and ongoing) impacts of the pandemic, Open Streets offers New Yorkers open space in their neighborhoods they need and deserve. To honor the promise of a city rising from all we have lost, the next administration must ensure the Open Streets program is made permanent, and that it is done equitably.
Carlina Rivera is a New York City Council representative for Manhattan’s District 2. Vanessa Gibson is a New York City Council representative for The Bronx’s 16th District, and the next Bronx borough president.