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Today is one of those heartbreakingly beautiful spring days, when the air is silken and trees are haloed in golden green. It is also dangerous. New Yorkers are aching to get outdoors, and when they do, they will encounter others. The anti-car mantra — You’re not in traffic; you are traffic — now applies to people on foot.
Even in a depopulated city, and as conscientiously as we try to respect the new, expansive definition of personal space, we are still competing for limited acreage on sidewalks and park paths. Scaffolding and construction hoarding create tight channels. The weekly public art installations of piled garbage bags have become menacing shoals. When I approach these narrows and see another human being coming in my direction, I pause and wait, so that we masked strangers can leave plenty of air between us. Even so, on nearly every expedition through my neighborhood, one or two reckless joggers invariably swing too close, expelling particle-drenched air at high velocity as they pound past.
The odd thing about this choreography of hygiene is that it doesn’t have to be so complex. Right on the other side of the bags, the scaffolding, the hydrants, and the curb lies a vast, empty river of asphalt where pedestrians could comfortably unclump. Ambulances and trucks ply the arteries, and drivers occasionally whip by at unconscionable speeds, as if the pandemic granted them license to kill. But otherwise, most side streets and many avenues offer glimpses of a post-car future — or would, if the city redistributed public acreage the way it allocates hospital gear: to the people who need it most.
Transit, pedestrian, and bike advocates, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and even Dan Rather have been pushing Mayor de Blasio to shut some streets down to nonexistent traffic and turn them over to pedestrians. When Governor Andrew Cuomo did the same, the mayor responded like a teenager asked to clean up his room: He resisted, explained why it couldn’t be done, then made a grudging gesture of compliance, declared it a failure, and promptly gave up.
On March 27, the de Blasio administration launched (plopped might be a more accurate term) an open-streets pilot program: a handful of blocks on four streets, for a total of 1.5 miles. Yesterday, he scrapped the idea, for a collection of spurious and contradictory reasons. It rained, so nobody showed up. But lots of people might show up, and then the cops would have to break up groups that refused to distance, as they do in parks. De Blasio was effectively using pedestrian advocates’ arguments against them: Many studies have shown that widening roads creates more traffic, a phenomenon known as induced demand, so surely the same thing is true for pedestrians. If you try to reduce crowding by giving people more space, then more people will go out, and create thicker crowds.
That sounds reasonable. In ordinary times, we gravitate to plazas, and follow the scent of grilling kielbasa and fried dough to jammed street fairs. Now, though, we shun each other as if life depended on it — because it does. New York has more than 6,000 miles of dramatically underutilized public streets; commandeering, say, 20 or 30 or 50 of them for pedestrian use would be a pilot project that’s not doomed. Riverside Drive, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Fordham Road, Eastern Parkway, Ocean Parkway, Steinway Street, Woodside Avenue, and hundreds of side streets could be traffic-free by tomorrow morning, open only to deliveries, drop-offs, and emergency vehicles. If setting aside entire boulevards seems like too much of a pedestrian land grab, then the Department of Transportation could allocate a single lane, restoring the balance that existed before sidewalks all over the city were narrowed to make way for cars. And if we close much larger swaths of blacktop, the risk of pedestrian crowding will be negated because we’ll never fill it all up.
Despite the mayor’s hedging and complaining, the only equipment needed to make that a reality already sits in city stockpiles: some wooden barriers, detour signs, and orange cones. Yes, some cops would be needed — to prevent drivers from trespassing though, rather than to chaperone pedestrians. Winnipeg did it. Bogotá somehow managed to expand its network of bike lanes virtually overnight. In New York, the only scarce resource is political will.
Perhaps de Blasio worries that successful closures would set a precedent: Give pedestrians a mile and pretty soon they’ll wrestle vast swaths of the city back from cars. If that were to happen, it would be one benevolent legacy of an awful time.