Opening Streets is Important but…

Nur Asri
Nur Asri
Aug 3, 2020 · 4 min read

This story was sitting in unpublished for awhile but I was inspired by a recent article on Streetsblog about the inequity of the Open Restaurant program, here: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2020/07/05/op-ed-the-dangers-of-privatizing-public-space/

Three weeks ago, the City of New York announced that it would be closing streets to cars and opening up to 100 miles of streets to “make social distancing easier and reduce crowds at city parks”.

Let me remind you that three weeks ago, we were a little over week 5 of NYS on Pause. And for many in New York City, it might have even been Week 6 or 7 of self-isolation. That’s how long it took for the Mayor and City Agencies to react (with much pressure from City Council).

That aside, the City started meekly — opening a whopping 7.2 miles of streets within and adjacent to parks that, if you think about it, should have been closed to vehicular traffic anyway. If you’re wondering how much 7.2 miles of streets are, well, for perspective, there are approximately over 8,000 miles of streets in NYC so that’s about 0.09% of roads.

But let’s go back to the first goal of opening streets amidst this pandemic: To make social distancing easier. In that case, let’s first evaluate where the need is for outdoor space to social distance. Naturally, we ask, who in the city isn’t currently able to access large parks and open spaces that allow for social distancing? See the blue bubbles below? Well, these are all the people that live in areas that are in close proximity to large parks — within at least 0.5 mile. Mind you, 0.5 mile is not even accessible or short enough a distance for a lot of the population, particularly the elderly, families with young children, people with physical disabilities, etc., but let’s start there.

Notice pockets of the population who aren’t as fortunate enough to live close to large parks and open spaces? For the most part, these are areas located in outer boroughs (shocker!) — the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn (as shown below).

So it’s now Week Three of open streets in NYC and there are over 21 miles of streets closed to vehicular traffic. Fantastic, a 300% increase since opening week but let’s take a closer look at where the City has expanded its efforts to offer space up for social distancing.

That’s right, you’re seeing more open streets (denoted by deep pink lines on the map) that have popped up over the last two weeks in neighborhoods that are already in close proximity to large, iconic parks, including Central Park, Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Prospect Park, etc. The areas that were circles in purple that weren’t as fortunate enough to have great access to large parks and open spaces are still, for the most part, lacking the space to social distance outdoors.

While we should acknowledge the City’s efforts to open up streets in Jackson Heights, East Williamsburg, and Morrisania-Melrose, our next priority should really be the Bronx and Central Brooklyn. The large purple bubbles covering Soundview-Bruckner, Parkchester, Van Nest-Morris Park, Crown Heights (East), East Flatbush, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick South really highlight populations at risk.

When we go further and underlay Median Household Incomes to the map, notice these are also areas where populations with lower median household incomes are located. Once again, the city has left underserved neighborhoods to fend for itself.

An underlying factor for the inequity of the open streets program is the restriction to close streets that are located along bus, truck, and hospital access routes, of which there are plenty in the Bronx (truck routes) and Central Brooklyn (bus routes). We can dive into environmental justice issues in the Bronx and subway transit deserts in Central Brooklyn another day.

As we move into the next few weeks, and as the weather starts to get warmer and dangerous heat waves pose threats to our lower income neighborhoods, the City needs to immediately pivot to these areas that lack access to large parks and open spaces.

Thinking Cities

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