New York City has always been known for its pedestrian experience. In usual times, a walk through any one of the five boroughs demands a quick stride, assertive attitude, and an ability to navigate through tides of people, cars, and buses. But now, the days of fighting for crosswalk space might (temporarily) be at an end. In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would open 40 miles of streets to pedestrians, with the intent to open almost 100 miles through the remainder of the pandemic.
“The open streets are going to be another way to help encourage social distancing, because the warmer weather tells us we’re going to have a new challenge,” de Blasio commented during a press conference announcing the new policy. The city’s first open streets will be those nearest to and inside public parks, to give residents an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors without undue risk of contagion. According to CNBC reporting, the city will continue to monitor outdoor activity to ensure that social distancing measures are observed.
New York’s open-street experiment follows similar policies implemented in cities such as Boston, Minneapolis, and Oakland. The sudden openness has reportedly been transformative for some communities, enabling residents to find cheer and safely connect to their neighbors in a way that has been all but impossible since shelter-in-place measures began.
In a recent article for Curbed, Oakland resident Courtney E. Martin explained how open-street policies had revitalized her community under quarantine and brought about opportunities for outdoor family fun that would never have existed during ordinary circumstances.
“‘Slow streets,’ overnight, transformed our family life and the lives of our neighbors,” Martin writes. “We had struggled to find a place to teach our daughter to ride her bike up until this point. It always seemed like such a production. Easier to just scoot along the sidewalk and put it off. But the minute the streets opened up, we got our helmets on and headed out […] The only thing that may be as reliable as toilet paper selling out during this strange era is kids learning to ride bikes.”
But not all perspectives on the open-street initiative have been quite so cheerful. In New York, the idea faced significant pushback from city leaders. At one point, Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to say that, “I do not believe it will work, period.”
While it’s still early in the roll-out process, his perspective appears to have been overly pessimistic. The reopening has so far gone smoothly — and it is worth noting that nearly two months have passed since the last time a pedestrian was fatally struck by a car in New York City. This period, ABC 7 reports, “marks the longest stretch since the city began tracking pedestrian fatalities in 1983.”
In trying times like these, such good news is worth celebrating. As summer progresses, it will be exciting to see how New Yorkers use the open-street policy to safely revitalize community spirit and foster joy despite the pressures of COVID-19.