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New York City Is Latest To Close Some Streets To Cars, Making More Space For People

A New York City worker closes a street to car traffic in Manhattan on Saturday so that pedestrians and cyclists can maintain social distancing. Mayor Bill de Blasio said 100 miles will be closed to car traffic in the coming weeks.
Eduardo Munoz
A New York City worker closes a street to car traffic in Manhattan on Saturday so that pedestrians and cyclists can maintain social distancing. Mayor Bill de Blasio said 100 miles will be closed to car traffic in the coming weeks.

New York City has opened seven miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists, in an effort to create more space for people to maintain a safe distance from one another while outside.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council say40 miles of streets across the boroughs will open during May, with an eventual goal of 100 miles in the coming weeks.

The move to limit car access on the city's streets comes amid pressure from citizens and activists to make more space for New Yorkers to get fresh air and exercise safely.

Traffic has sharply declined in the city in recent weeks, as New York City became a hot spot for coronavirus cases. But still, the streets have stayed open to traffic, forcing people to crowd on narrow sidewalks. Speeding by drivers is way up, endangering pedestrians and cyclists. New Yorkers have also been avoiding the subways, where ridership is down more than 90%, and are instead buying bikes.

Not everyone is impressed by the opening of seven miles to walkers, joggers and cyclists: the stretches open so far are all either in or adjacent to parks, where the role of cars is already dubious.

"Getting cars out of parks ≠ 'open streets,'" tweeted Doug Gordon, an advocate for biking and bike infrastructure in New York.

Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo toldStreetsblog that these first seven miles within and next to parks "is the low-hanging fruit, and the sorts of streets the city would be able to close relatively quickly. Moving forward, the priority has to be streets in neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, where air pollution is high, where parks are few, and where sidewalks are narrow."

Other cities have acted more quickly to close streets to cars and create room for people to walk, run, bike and rollerblade.

Oakland, Calif., announced on April 10 that it would close 74 miles – or nearly 10% of the city's streets – to through traffic. As of May 1, it has installed "soft closures" including barricades, signs and traffic cones on 14 miles of streets. Emergency vehicles can still pass through.

"When we close our streets to cars, we open them up for amazing possibilities," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said, explaining that the program "is trying to send a message that we want Oaklanders to recreate in a socially distanced manner, a physically distanced manner. And by opening up our streets to bikes, joggers, pedestrians, we are giving Oaklanders more room to spread out safely."

Charlotte, N.C., will designate some low-speed, non-thoroughfare streets as "Shared Streets" beginning May 9, closing them to through traffic.

"Shared Streets are streets that are temporarily designated and signed as streets for walking, wheelchair rolling, biking, skateboarding, and rollerblading. Through traffic will not be permitted, but emergency vehicles, delivery vehicles, and residents who live on those streets will still be able to access the roads by motor vehicle," the city says.

But other cities have taken a different tack.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has closed the entirety of the city's lakefront path, as well as its popular Riverwalk and 606 trails, after a warm March day brought people out in large numbers. Some essential workers complain that with the city's safest and most popular bike corridors barricaded, they're forced to either drive or take transit to go to work — an option that's now less popular due to concerns about being exposed to the virus in enclosed spaces.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has also been unswayed by pressure to open streets to people instead of cars. "I don't want to send the message to people to go out and have a festival," she told NPR member station WAMU.

At a press conference a few days later, she reiterated: "I'm not convinced by this open-streets argument."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.

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