“The 34th Avenue Open Street shows how urban roads can be repurposed to make a more livable city. Even more, it is an example of how communities must lead these efforts so that streets reflect a common vision for what communities care about.”

Jim Burke

The 34th Avenue Open Street in Queens.

Around 2 p.m. on a school day, thousands of students spill onto 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. As local resident Jim Burke describes, they start small at first, as elementary schoolers end their day, and then the children get taller as 2 p.m. turns to 2:20 and 2:40, with middle and high school ending. The street is a crush of kids playing, parents socializing around café tables at pick-up, uniformed students walking in packs down the street, and on bikes, scooters, and skateboards. This is just a normal school-day afternoon on this Open Street.

Burke’s apartment faces 34th, and he is one of the Open Street’s founders and champions. I met him for a walk on a cold morning in late February. Despite the weather and school holiday, the avenue was packed. We could hardly walk a few steps without someone saying hello to him in Spanish or English. Neighbors stopped their power walks to show him a picture they took of the moon setting over the street or a hawk they spotted in a nearby tree. There is a chorus of birdsong on 34th Avenue that creates an avian soundtrack unimpaired by the din of traffic.

I met Burke’s husband, Oscar Escobar, who hosts games of Peruvian Sapo on weekends and was volunteering on a Monday morning at the corner of 77th for the weekly La Tienda del Pueblo or “Village Shop” that distributes clothing and food donations. Burke waved across the planted median to a woman pushing a bike and walking with a friend. He commented that she teaches the regularly scheduled hula hoop classes on the street.

As the Queens chair for the local advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, Burke has long been interested in opening streets to people, not cars. The ongoing list of activities now hosted on this Open Street is a testament to how successful that project has been. 

Between 76th and 77th Streets Monday-Thursday kids can jump rope, hopscotch, chalk the street, and play games after school. On Wednesdays, there are 9 a.m. Zumba classes on the corner of 94th, and people meet at 90th in the afternoons to practice English in ESL classes. There is a community walk Thursday mornings. In the warmer months, the weekends are even more crowded with people gardening in the median, picnicking on the street, musicians strumming to swaying dancers, and kids playing corn hole. There is a steady inter-generational flow of walkers, joggers, and bike riders. But this traffic moves slowly: slow enough for me to spot a toddler holding his father’s hand and carefully aligning one foot after another on the concrete edge of the median to test his balance. 

Compared with the local co-op courtyards with signs that limit activities, kids have free rein on the Open Street. Burke says, “This is first and foremost a micro-mobility corridor [a safe place to travel by bike or scooter], but it’s also a place to throw a ball, to run, to make noise, to scream, to do all the things you can’t do in private courtyards and private space and even some of our own public parks. We want people to do all of those things.”

Burke grew up in the Bronx where kids would play games in the street. On hot days, they would open the fire hydrants for locals to cool off. He hopes that three years into this Open Street experiment, the children on 34th will get a taste of what he experienced growing up. The programmatic focus on kids has made them some of the Open Street’s most enthusiastic curators. One middle-schooler named Alex organizes running races; another, Lillian, formed a group of grade-school friends to make street signs. There is even a 34th Avenue Community Choir started by Luis, a local high school student.

Unlike many Open Streets that rely on a Business Improvement District to sponsor them, 34th Avenue was co-developed by neighbors who program the street together. Burke credits Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo as his co-founder. Like Burke, O’Doherty-Naranjo is a seasoned community organizer. They met when Burke was working on a campaign to stop the MTA from cutting bus lines to the neighborhood and O’Doherty-Naranjo was fighting to lower speed limits around local schools. They both delivered food to neighbors during the height of the COVID pandemic.

Today, Burke and O’Doherty-Naranjo are among the 17-person steering committee that organizes volunteers to help with programs and check the barricades several times a day to keep people safe. They manage food vendors, organize activities and events, liaise with local schools, and apply for permits and funding. Many neighborhood residents contribute ideas for programs and dutifully help tend the street. Burke feels this is the reason the street works. He says, “We needed people to feel they had ownership because they do. It’s their neighborhood.”

Ownership is what has helped neighbors to feel invested in the 34th Avenue Open Street. However, it didn’t start that way. In 2020, the city’s official Open Street program closed several blocks of 34th with barricades and put officers on every corner, creating a presence on the street that Burke says, “felt more like a checkpoint than an invitation to occupy the street.”

Jackson Heights is one of the densest neighborhoods in the city and, as home to many immigrants, one of the most diverse communities in the country. Locals are proud that 167 different languages are spoken there. There are shops with saris and gold necklaces in the windows. Restaurants serve fusions of Chinese, Thai, and Tibetan food. The neighborhood hosts an annual Pride Parade and has been home to the LGBTQ+ community for decades. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, people didn’t feel safe in this community. The neighborhood had some of the highest COVID death rates and less access to parks than most in the city. Yet people walked around 34th to avoid the police. Burke remembers, “At that time, the police were being called out by the media for various forms of brutality, so people were afraid of them.” Just days after closing the street to cars, Mayor Bill de Blasio ended the city-run experiment saying, “folks just didn’t show up.”

But neighbors refused to let the car-free street go. They organized themselves as the 34th Avenue Open Streets Coalition and held a rally closing one block with homemade sandwich boards and chalk. They wore orange vests, invited people to use the street, and called the media. As Burke describes it, “The world did not end with the street staying closed. Cars just went past us, kids played, people danced, and we demonstrated to the city how you do an Open Street.”

For the community of Jackson Heights, this Open Street has done far more than provide a safe space to be outdoors, it has brought them together. Kids from different schools meet one another when they race down the street or play after school. Older people meet neighborhood kids as they help them make valentines.

Celebrating holidays from all over the world has allowed residents the opportunity to share their cultural traditions. Each year there are Halloween pumpkin patches, Día de Los Muertos performances, and a community Thanksgiving meal. The Colombian La Noche de las Velitas or “Day of the Little Candles” is celebrated with lanterns lining the median, Santa Claus visits the street for Christmas (with reindeer and elves), and a “Happy Noon Year” celebration lets kids ring in the coming year. Recently, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the local Glee Club led a march and for Chinese Lunar New Year the community took part in a lantern walk. Burke puts it simply, “We all know each other now.”

34th Avenue was one of the 83 miles of Open Streets created in New York City during the COVID pandemic, and among the 157 municipalities in 35 states that closed streets to cars during the lockdown. Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, believes that these experiences, brought on by necessity, have made it easier for people to imagine new ways of using the public right of way.

“For more than 100 years, since the birth of the automobile, our cities and our world have prioritized inanimate objects over human beings, and we’ve seen that play out to disastrous impact. Then, you have these moments in time when people can see the world differently,” Harris said. 

William Alatriste/NYC Council Media Unit

Mayor Eric Adams visiting the 34th Avenue Open Street in February 2022.

Open Street experiments offer models for prioritizing people on city streets. As Harris observes, the pandemic “led to so many terrible things. It also led to a moment when, in Manhattan, you could hear birds outside your window or you could walk in the street, especially if you were an older adult or you had a kid.”

Taken together, streets and sidewalks are New York City’s largest public space. However, 75 percent of the city’s 6,300 miles of streets are devoted to cars, including three million free parking spaces. Harris says, “Organizations like ours and others across the world, we’ve always been talking about how asphalt is an asset, and we squander it.”

Since its inception, the 34th Avenue Open Street has shown how to utilize the public right of way for people. Since New York City made its Open Streets program permanent in April 2021, it has become the longest Open Street in the city. A one-block demonstration turned into a 26-block-long commons running between 69th Street and Junction Boulevard for 1.3 miles (or a 6,000-step loop if you are counting them on your exercise app). As a result, 34th Avenue saw a 12-fold increase in biking—the biggest recorded jump in the city.

On our walk, Burke and I veered away from the quiet of 34th street and walked down toward a whoosh of speeding cars and trucks running along Northern Boulevard. Although Burke’s front windows look out to the street life on 34th Avenue, the back of his co-op building faces Northern Boulevard. He is sandwiched between two profoundly different New York streets. Northern Boulevard has been referred to as the “New Boulevard of Death,” taking the mantle from Queens Boulevard. The street has the fifth-highest truck volumes of any major truck route in the city.

We approached the corner of Northern and Junction Boulevards. With three lanes in each direction, surrounded by two lanes of parked cars, it is easy to feel vulnerable. Yet kids on their way to Flushing and Queens High Schools have to navigate this terrifying road daily. We came across a laminated handmade sign with a collage of photos. In one corner is a picture of a young man, his brown eyes staring sweetly at the camera. In the grainy black and white photo next to him, a car is shown at night with its headlights glowing.

The sign reads in English and Spanish, “Reward $10,000 For Information regarding A FATAL HIT AND RUN.” Next to the sign was a bouquet of silk flowers and a freshly wrapped rose carefully tucked among them. Burke explains that “There would always be flowers there and someone’s name.” Sadly, it is not always the same person.

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and Union Street ranks in the top 20 percent of most dangerous roads in the borough based on the number of fatalities and severe injuries due to vehicle crashes. As the transportation-focused publication Streetsblog has chronicled, many kids have been killed on Northern Boulevard in the last decade, including 3-year-old Jahir Figueroa, 17-year-old Ovidio Jaramillo, 9-year-old Giovani Ampuero, and 19-year-old Sara Perez.

According to Vision Zero NYC part of a national campaign to eradicate all traffic fatalities25 people have lost their lives on Northern Boulevard since 2009 (four in 2018), with too many injuries to count.

According to Transportation Alternatives, traffic violence seriously injures or kills a New Yorker every two hours. Queens alone saw 68 traffic fatalities in 2022.* In New York City, being struck by a vehicle is among the leading causes of injury-related death for children from the time they can walk into adulthood. Sixteen children were killed on New York City streets in 2022.

National trends are similar, or worse: 46,000 people died on U.S. roads in 2021. Other countries have seen these numbers substantially decline during the pandemic, as cities around the world leveraged the decrease in driving to dedicate more space to safe walking and biking. But in the U.S., fatalities increased. Advocates are frustrated by the lack of public outrage.

John McCarten/NYC Council

A vigil set up outside City Hall in 2019 to honor New Yorkers killed in traffic violence that year.

“The sad reality is it doesn’t matter who dies or how many people. You have more kids who died in New York than in any year since Vision Zero and that doesn’t change things,” Harris said. “You have celebrities, you have influencers, you have parents, children, clergy people, you have famous athletes. It truly doesn’t matter. Even the person who was running for mayor against Eric Adams was hit by a car… It is not enough to change the fundamental conversation.”

The conversation we should be having, he says, is not about how streets should serve cars but how they must serve people. Leah Shahum, the national director for Vision Zero, claims that the only way to achieve that goal, in New York and in cities across the nation, is to lower speeds and redesign streets.

As she explains, “The truth is that we know what works to help people move safely in their communities. It’s not a mystery. We have the strategies, technology, and know-how to advance safe mobility for everyone, but we choose not to because speed and (perceived) convenience are prioritized over safety. We design our roads and vehicles, set speeds, and allow people to drive in ways that increase risk, especially for people outside cars.”

“These are not accidents,” she concludes, echoing the campaigns of parents whose children were killed on a routine walk to school or through their neighborhood. “They are the predictable results of the priorities we’ve chosen and the systems we’ve designed for the past century.”

Current rates of traffic violence in the U.S. resemble those in the Netherlands 50 years ago, where more than 3,000 people were killed on the streets each year—half of whom were 19 years old or younger. In Amsterdam, children and their parents took matters into their own hands by dragging barricades across the entrances to their streets and closing them to cars to create places to play.

The “Stop de Kindermoord,” or “Stop Child Murder,” movement ignited a transformation of the city’s streets. The number of people killed on Amsterdam’s roadways began declining in 1973 and has continued ever since. Today, only 21 percent of people use cars to get around Amsterdam, and 48 percent use bikes. The city is also on a path to remove more than 11,200 parking spaces by 2025 (1,500 per year). This newly liberated outdoor space is being used for expanding gardens, seating, and places for kids to play.

As Harris says, “We don’t have to look at those cities and say, ‘We need to be exactly like you,’ but we should be learning from them.”

New York City, where most people take transit or walk to work and more than half of households are car-free (in Manhattan it is more than three-quarters), is the ideal place to rethink the use of U.S. streets as public spaces. During the pandemic, Transportation Alternatives launched an ambitious campaign called 25×25, which would reclaim 25 percent of the city’s streets for car-free uses by 2025.

The 25×25 challenge does not start from the top-down but is built by communities. Transportation Alternatives began by asking neighbors to collectively imagine what they would do with 25 percent of their roadway if it were freed up from cars–especially parked cars. As Harris said, “We wanted to understand how New Yorkers felt about their streets and what they were willing to give up.”

Adi Talwar

Parked cars along Webster Avenue in the Bronx.

With research showing that pandemic-era Open Streets were not equally distributed, Transportation Alternatives’ tools are helping to prioritize neighborhoods that have not seen their share of street improvements. Their efforts aim to ensure that all New Yorkers can have access to more green space, expanded tree canopy, better transit, safe streets and bike lanes, and generous spaces—like the 34th Avenue Open Street.

Over the course of thousands of stakeholder meetings, residents proposed kids’ play areas, public bathrooms, bike parking, bus shelters, a place for trash collection, street trees, and places to sit. Across the board, there was a clear willingness to make trade-offs between parking and creating these new neighborhood amenities.

After participating in many of these gatherings, Harris recalls, “In New York, everybody has a dream…We all live in these tiny quarters. It became a moment for people to have that dream,” and to develop a common vision with their neighbors. 

The 25×25 challenge earned the support of Mayor Adams and more than 200 community partners including a coalition of unions, public health organizations, and economic, educational, environmental, and disability rights advocates. Today, Transportation Alternatives has outlined shovel-ready projects on streets in all five boroughs.

Plans include Queens’ Northern Boulevard where the median, flanked by dedicated busways, would be transformed into a public green space with benches, tables, and a connection to the Flushing memorial. This space would include dedicated zones for school drop-offs and parking space for the NYPD so that sidewalks are not blocked by cars, and protected bikeways crisscrossing Union Street and Northern Boulevard to integrate this area into a protected bike network.

Transportation Alternatives has pushed 25×25 forward by creating what Harris refers to as “archetypes” of solutions, generated by communities and applied by demand. For example, the School Streets Toolkit, created with the tactical urbanist group Open Plans, is designed to simplify the process of applying for a school street, helping communities prioritize kid-friendly plazas for recess, outdoor learning, assemblies, and the rush of morning and afternoon pickups and drop-offs. It gives guidance to schools and their communities about how to implement, program, and maintain school streets.

Today, 34th Avenue is becoming a model for how to implement these approaches permanently. In the summer of 2022, the New York City Department of Transportation built upon this community’s successful efforts and invested in formal designs to improve the aesthetics and safety of the street’s public spaces. In stakeholder meetings leading up to the official pilot project, there was some pushback to the Open Street, but ultimately the Jackson Heights community agreed on the common need to protect neighborhood kids.

As Burke says, “Even the detractors on 34th would say, ‘What about the kids? Can we at least agree that in front of the schools, we can make it safe?’” Together, the community decided that giving up on-street parking spaces or a speedier roadway was worth it to ensure their children’s safety.

New designs focus on neighborhood schools, diverting traffic from the street while planters and concrete benches block cars from “plaza blocks” where colored pavement, tables and seats delineate the areas outside schools. Bollards and chicanes snake traffic at slow speeds on shared blocks with signage providing clear direction to cross traffic. Neighborhood loading zones concentrate commercial trucks.

City officials hope that what is learned about these designs on 34th Avenue can be applied elsewhere as streets are redesigned throughout the city. The hope of reclaiming streets for people is perhaps closer than ever. In February, New York City was awarded more than $21 million in federal dollars as a part of the Safe Streets and Roads for All program under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with funds targeted to communities that need them most.

The Adams administration seems to be making good on its promise to support 25×25 and the project to invest in public space. In the same month, Ya-Ting Liu, formerly a transportation advocate for Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Campaign, was appointed as the city’s first-ever Chief Public Realm Officer

The majority of New Yorkers are in favor of Open Streets. Polling suggests 63 percent of voters support closing streets to cars, including 57 percent of car owners. And 84 percent believe creating places for kids to play in their neighborhoods is a good idea, even if it means giving up parking space.

Harris feels it is important for the City to set a high bar. He says, “If New York City can’t do this in the largest city where the majority of households do not own a car, what hope does Wichita have—or San Jose or LA?… New York has to get it right.”

The 34th Avenue Open Street shows how urban roads can be repurposed to make a more livable city. Even more, it is an example of how communities must lead these efforts so that streets reflect a common vision for what communities care about.

When Burke envisions the future of 34th Avenue, he imagines the street “as a series of rooms.” Near 85th where there are large mature trees, he pictures a quiet respite like a reading room. Near local schools, there could be play and climbing equipment, and up in the 90s, where neighbors have requested more performances, Mexican mariachi bands could take to the stage.

Burke’s vision is not just for Queens, but for the future of streets throughout the city. He hopes for “an interconnected network of Open Streets throughout New York City that you could travel on by foot or by bike or by skateboard or by wheelchair,” and adds, most importantly, “without ever getting hurt.”

Alison Sant is a partner and co-founder of the urban design practice, the Studio for Urban Projects. She is the author of “From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities” (Island Press, 2022), a book that examines how American cities are mitigating and adapting to climate change while creating greater equity and livability.

*Editor’s note: The story was updated after publication to correct the number of traffic fatalities in Queens last year.