As the sixth week of New York City’s coronavirus lockdown draws to a close, New Yorkers are getting antsy — and authorities know it.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, in partnership with the City Council, announced his commitment to closing off up to 100 miles of streets to make more space for city dwellers during the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities hope residents will make use of the alternative outdoor space for leisure and exercise, rather than flocking to popular parks that have become overcrowded destinations for agitated New Yorkers who are desperate to escape the confines of their small apartments.
It’s a victory for pedestrian and cyclist advocates, like City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has long pushed for more pedestrian-friendly urban planning and projects.
“The Council is thrilled our calls for open streets have been answered and looks forward to working with the administration to give New Yorkers the space they need to socially distance properly. As the weather gets nicer and this unprecedented crisis stretches on longer, we need to do everything in our power to keep our neighbors safe and healthy,” Johnson said in a statement.
The project is the result of weeks of back-and-forth between the City Council and Mayor de Blasio, who canceled a tiny pilot program for a similar initiative in early April, citing low usage and a burden on the police force.
“The problem with the additional street closures is you have to attach enforcement to them. If we don't attach enforcement to them, we're very concerned they become new gathering points and we do not want to seem to be solving one problem by creating a new one,” de Blasio said during a press briefing at the time. “Keeping the NYPD and other enforcement entities focused where they are is what we believe is the best strategy. Remember, they do have fewer personnel themselves than usual.”
Since then, Johnson and his City Council allies have been pushing the city to try again. They introduced legislation for the new project last week. Johnson subsequently threatened to enlist the help of de Blasio’s sometimes political nemesis, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had previously expressed his support of such programs.
During one of his daily press conferences in March, Cuomo excoriated New Yorkers for crowding in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, calling it “insensitive, arrogant, self-destructive, disrespectful,” and demanding de Blasio and the City Council take necessary actions to reduce congestion, including closing off streets.
Ultimately, they have come together in support of a program, inspired by a similar initiative in Oakland, California. The intention is to rely on thoughtful design like signage and bollards to enforce closures and social distancing, rather than on law enforcement, the New York Post reported.
“Berlin, Paris, Montreal, Denver, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Portland, Bogota, and Oakland have all taken this common-sense action. None of them needed four police officers per block to make this program work and ensure that people observe physical distancing. Neither do we,” Council Member Brad Lander said in a statement.
Details are still in the works to determine which streets will be affected and how, but authorities have prioritized certain types of streets for closure, including up to 60 miles of streets in and around city parks, up to 20 miles identified in partnership with local precincts, up to 10 miles overseen by civic organizations, up to 10 miles of protected bike lanes, and up to 2.5 miles of widened sidewalks.
City Council expects the city will close off about 40 miles of streets within the next month and roll out additional closures thereafter.