Op-Ed: Here Are Some Cities Getting Open Streets Right

Lessons from Milan, Paris, Bogota, Vilnius and even New York.

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“Whichever underlying conditions the pandemic has exposed in our health-care or political system,” Tom Vanderbilt wrote in The Atlantic, “the lockdown has shown us just how much room American cities devote to cars.”

Nowhere is this more true than New York, America’s most populous metropolis and the city most hard-hit by COVID-19, where the majority of sidewalks are too narrow to maintain safe physical distancing practices, and where, for more than 100 years, public space has been sliced and slivered to accommodate car traffic.

In late April, Mayor de Blasio proposed a solution: 100 miles of streets closed to cars and open to people, coupled with plans to widen narrow sidewalks and install pop-up bike lanes. What all that will look like is still open to debate.

Lucky for New Yorkers, other cities have already responded to the pandemic by closing their streets to cars — and there are some major lessons for de Blasio in the Open Streets of other cities. Here’s what he has to learn.

You can think big

De Blasio’s plan to open 100 miles of New York City streets is a good start, but compared to Open Streets in other cities around the world, it is a very small start. With some 6,000 miles of streets in New York, de Blasio’s 100 mile plan represents less than 2 percent of city streets.

Worldwide, other cities are opening their streets in a much bigger way. Like in Oakland, California, where a full 10 percent of streets are being converted to Open Streets.

But thinking big when it comes to Open Streets is not just about mileage. Like Paris, which wanted to build an alternative, outdoor transportation network in light of the pandemic (more on that next). To find space for that transportation network, Paris looked to the biggest space hog on city streets: car parking. The city plans to remove a whopping 72 percent of on-street car parking in the city center to make more room for people on city streets.

You can use streets as public transit

What Paris is putting in place of all that removed car parking is another lesson for de Blasio. Because crowded subways can be a transmission point for the coronavirus, Paris is building 400 miles of bike lanes into former car parking spaces as an alternative form of public transit.

This is not just about safe cycling. It is about creating an alternative system of transportation — which means connected routes where people otherwise used cars, buses, or trains. Paris understands this, and is working regionally to create long-distance cycling routes — “Corona Cycleways” — between the suburbs into the city center.

Bogota sees this potential, too. That city installed new bike lanes to lessen overcrowding on transit during COVID-19, based on commuting patterns and routes, and connecting residential neighborhoods into the central business district .

Bogota, Mexico City, Milan, and Berlin are also dramatically expanding their bike lane network mileage. Even the World Health Organization has recommended walking and cycling as a way to stay healthy while avoiding coronavirus transmission.

You can prioritize people over cars

Open Streets are a decision to prioritize people over cars, but according to a few European cities, that decision should appear in every aspect of the transportation landscape.

For example, Milan is closing 22 miles of streets in the city center to non-essential driving. However cars are still allowed in some parts of the city center. To ensure that people are safe in these mixing zones, speed limits are being lowered to 18 mph in the city center.

Brussels is taking a similar approach, converting all streets in the city center to give people priority over cars. This comes with a 12 mph speed limit throughout the area, but also with regulations that allow people to walk and bike wherever they want, and requires cars to give the right of way. Priorities!

You can keep police focused elsewhere

COVID-19 has taken a toll on first responders, police officers included, which is why it is especially important that Mayor de Blasio learns from other U.S. cities that Open Streets do not require a police presence.

Open Streets in Oakland are self-managed, and demarcated with simple traffic cones and barricades. The same is true in San Francisco, where sandwich boards remind people to maintain a six foot distance to avoid coronavirus transmission. Philadelphia and Boston also closed local streets to cars and opened them to people without police involvement.

In fact, de Blasio can even learn this lesson from himself! In New York City, long before the coronavirus pandemic, when Mayor de Blasio closed Prospect Park and Central Park to car traffic, those closures were indicated with cones and barricades, not cops. This remains true in 2020.

You can use open streets to save restaurants

New York City’s world famous restaurant industry has suffered mightily from the coronavirus pandemic, and with physical distancing requirements expected to be in place for sometime, there is no end in sight — unless de Blasio looks to Lithuania.

In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, streets are being closed to cars to allow restaurants to expand into public space. The city will be open street space to restaurateurs for sprawling open air cafes, spaced for physical distancing requirements.

You can use open streets to save Main Street

New York City is facing a recession, like cities around the world. Luckily, there is an economic case to be made for Open Streets — and de Blasio can find lessons about that in his own backyard. Like on Pearl Street, in Brooklyn, which saw a 172 percent increase in retail sales after being closed to cars. In other areas of the city, opening streets to cycling and making streets safe for people walking both acted as a significant boon to business.

Other city’s Open Streets can offer this economic lesson, too. In San Francisco, Open Streets came with more sales, more customers, and higher employment. Madrid’s Open Streets, which are extensive, had a citywide effect on sales — both adjacent businesses and the citywide economy saw improvements.

You can anticipate a future with fewer cars

Cities like Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Bogota, and Mexico City have been restricting car access to city streets for years, and for reasons that have nothing to do with coronavirus — from pollution to safety to space. It is no coincidence these cities were ahead of the game when it became clear that COVID-19 would require Open Streets.

Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, perhaps best stated the lesson that Mayor de Blasio can learn from other cities’ Open Streets.

“We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops,” he told the Guardian. While Deputy Mayor Granelli noted that Milan was eager to reopen after COVID-19, he acknowledged that his city had changed. “We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation. We have to get ready; that’s why it’s so important to defend even a part of the economy, to support bars, artisans and restaurants. When it is over, the cities that still have this kind of economy will have an advantage, and Milan wants to be in that category.”

New York at a crossroads

In New York City, we like to note our exceptionalism. A common turn of phrase begins, this is not — and ends with whatever city is on offer. And while that old saw is true, and New York City is not Paris, Milan, or Oakland, it is also true that the lessons of those cities offer a lot for Mayor de Blasio to learn as he embarks on opening New York City’s streets. Streets and sidewalks make up 80 percent of public space in New York City, and the vast majority of that space is given over to storing and moving cars. It is time to rebalance our streets and optimize our limited public space for its highest use, and we could use some advice.

New York City is projected to reach a population of 9 million in the next two decades, and if our sidewalks are too narrow for COVID-19 today, they will not be wide enough for hundreds of thousands more residents tomorrow. How those people fit into our city — to survive a pandemic, but also to commute, and to thrive — depends on how de Blasio opens streets today. Luckily, a lot of other cities have paved the way.

Transportation Alternatives’s (@TransAlt) mission is to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking, and public transit for all New Yorkers.

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