photo by Mandy Aw
It often seems like the coronavirus pandemic has only brought doom and gloom, but there have been a few bright spots. One of the most notable ones is the transformation of city streets. Biking has become much more prevalent, as many, especially young people who can’t yet drive, use it as a physically distanced way of getting around. Restaurants sprawl out onto the asphalt as outdoor seating is quickly becoming the best weapon to combat both COVID-19 and economic stagnation, and large stretches of streets have been shut off to cars to allow pedestrians adequate space for recreation while adhering to physical distancing requirements. These changes should remain in place even after the pandemic is finally over.
The immediate benefit of this shift is obviously a decrease in the spread of coronavirus. The World Health Organization recommends biking as a vital part of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerous studies have found that the outdoors are significantly safer (note: safer, not completely safe) than indoors, provided other precautions like mask-wearing and distancing are followed, according to The Hill.
But open streets also help respiratory health in another way: decreased pollution due to fewer cars. According to a study published in The Lancet, air pollution is responsible for nine million premature deaths, which is 16% of all premature deaths worldwide. These healthcare costs add up to $4.2 trillion, 6.2% of total global economic output. Not only are costs reduced, but biking actually has been proven to spur economic growth – the deployment of Citi Bikes has been correlated with increased restaurant sales, and bike lanes may increase retail sales up to 49%, according to an NYC Department of Transportation study. Open streets literally save lives and make money.
There is also the ever-present issue of climate change to be reckoned with. The new countdown clock in Union Square shoves reality right into our faces, indicating that there’s a little over seven years to take collective action to prevent warming of over 1.5℃. The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, at 28% according to the EPA. It’s imperative that we don’t flood our streets with cars, or else we risk literally flooding them with water.
The argument for keeping, and even expanding, open streets isn’t just scientific, however. It’s also symbolic. Until relatively recently, the streets belonged to the people. Kids played freely, people biked and walked right down the middle, and vendors sold their goods, all without the fear of getting bodied by a hunk of metal on wheels moving at 40 miles an hour. In fact, the Brooklyn Bridge was originally built for pedestrians, cyclists, and trains. Overnight street parking used to be illegal in the city until the 1950s. Even today in European cities, cyclists and pedestrians dominate the streets and outdoor cafés are a common sight.
So where did we go wrong? Slowly – due in large part to New York City’s car-worshipping city planner, Robert Moses – things began to change. Avenues were widened and sidewalks shrunk. Humans were banned from the streets, now reserved for metal monsters, and anyone who dared disobey was labeled a “jaywalker.” In the last century, the city allocated almost a quarter of public lands to cars. The rise and domination of cars would have been impossible without conscious policy choices that sacrificed pedestrians at the altar of the automobile.
Consequently, this state of affairs can also be changed by conscious policy choices. The city has already made positive steps in this direction, recently making the Open Streets and Open Restaurants policy permanent. However, it can and should be taken even further. The city should establish even more open streets (currently it’s at 100 miles, less than 2% of all city streets), especially outside of Manhattan. Outdoor dining as well, which, according to the Gotham Gazette, currently takes up a mere 0.3% of curb space in the city (compared to the 75% devoted to free parking), can be expanded. There are plans to take the idea of “busways” (banning cars and reserving streets for just buses, as was done on Fourteenth Street between Third and Ninth Avenues in Manhattan) to even more thoroughfares within the city. In terms of biking, the Regional Plan Association released a plan this summer for a 425-mile Five Borough Bikeway. With cycling trips recently up 26% on weekdays and an even higher 57% on weekends according to the New York Post, more bike lanes are a must. Additionally, there have been many instances of drivers simply disregarding open-streets rules, either moving aside barriers or completely destroying them. More enforcement is needed of these no-car zones, and a public information campaign would help people understand the need for open streets. This also highlights the need for these changes to be implemented democratically by residents themselves, rather than it being implemented top-down from the DOT. This would allow people who actually know the neighborhoods to suggest proposals and increase community buy-in. All in all, the city can and should go much further and continue the efforts to open up city streets.
There are plenty of ways you as an individual and activist can help bring about these changes. One of the most important is electing city council members who actually support fewer cars on streets. A recent proposal to create a busway along Main Street in Flushing, Queens (part of a larger initiative to add a new busway in each borough) has been held up due in large part to opposition from that district’s council member. City council elections are next year, and over two-thirds of the members will be term-limited, so this is a great opportunity to volunteer and vote for candidates who support your values. Additionally, many projects come up during the year which require community input, so another way to get involved is to simply stay up to date with local news and even attend your local community board meetings. Lastly, of course, the fewer people who drive, the easier it is to pass policies to open up streets, so use alternative means of transportation whenever possible.
One of the most immediate and most visible effects of the stay-at-home orders was a drastic drop in global pollution. Skylines from Los Angeles to New Delhi were drastically altered as the smog finally cleared. The price of oil even dipped below zero for a while, as fossil-fuel consumption plummeted. All of this just serves to illustrate the massive paradigm shift that is possible when an entire planet is put on pause. This current moment sucks, but it’s also a unique chance to press the reset button and imagine a better post-pandemic world, one that values health, safety, and livelihood. To pass it up would be a shame.
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