The State of NYC’s Open Streets Program

October 15, 2021

Photo courtesy of Eater New York

A little over a year has passed since Mayor Bill de Blasio first unveiled the Open Streets Program. What is this program? The Open Streets Program allows communities to embrace public space and support small businesses by fully or partially shutting down a street. While it was initially established to give pedestrians and cyclists more space to safely spread out during the pandemic, it quickly became used to host a range of activities in concert with schools and retail stores amongst others. Given its quick success, the program developed into multiple offshoots including Open Restaurants – which allows foodservice establishments to formally serve their offerings on sidewalks and/or roadways – and Open Culture – which allows for cultural venues and institutions to host outdoor performances, workshops, and classes on the streets of the city. 

Despite this surface-level success, the program has not flourished evenly throughout the city. According to Transportation Alternatives (TA), although the program is both popular and a net positive for improving life in the city, there have been “significant inequities in the planning and operation of the program.” TA is a non-profit organization in NYC that, according to its website, “works to change New York City’s transportation priorities to encourage and increase non-polluting, quiet, city-friendly travel and decrease automobile use.” The reason why TA became so involved in this program is that “for nearly 50 years, TA has led the movement for safe, equitable streets in New York City… [with the] belief that our streets belong to the people of New York City.” 

TA has long been using “a combination of neighborhood-level grassroots organizing and city-wide advocacy to push for changes in public policy, street design, enforcement, and resource allocation that transform our city’s streets for the better.” For the Open Streets Program, TA decided to send out hundreds of volunteer surveyors to visit every Open Street in the city in an effort to determine how functional they are. Here are its findings:

TA Open Streets Report 

The survey found that, of the 274 Open Streets listed by the Department Of Transportation (DOT), only 46 percent of them—or 126 total Open Streets—were actually functional; for reference, an active Open Street was categorized as one where “at least one surveyor “observed barricades in the street, during the hours and days listed by the DOT.” According to the report, there were no barricades or barriers stopping cars from entering and driving through the majority of streets during the designated open hours. As a result, only 24 miles of functional Open Streets were found throughout the city. This is but a mere fraction of the 100-mile-goal cited by Mayor de Blasio when he launched the program – and remains far less than the peak number of 70 miles recorded late last summer. 

Perhaps the report’s most significant finding is that the program is, in its current form, ripe with inequality based on a number of features. For one, the majority of non-operational Open Streets were in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn; in the Bronx, 84% of listed Open Streets did not exist in practice – the numbers are 69% and 60% in Queens and Brooklyn respectively. Secondly, surveyors found that only 1 in 5 New Yorkers live within walking distance of an active Open Street. Lastly, there is an unequal distribution of Open Streets in wealthier neighborhoods and areas; for example, there are no active Open Streets in any of the six community board districts (none of which are in Manhattan) they identified as having the fewest residents living within walking distance of a park. 

The report still found evidence that the program is successful in other ways, however. Open Streets has been important for cycling safety – which saw a decrease in cyclist injuries by 17% on Open Streets while increasing 20% citywide over the last year. Relatedly, the number of motorist and pedestrian injuries also fell more on Open Streets than citywide in the same period as well. This is not to forget just how beneficial the program has been for foodservice establishments; according to Mayor de Blasio, over 100,000 restaurant industry jobs have been saved thanks to outdoor dining opportunities with only .38% of street space used by Open Streets. These positive trends are statistically supported as well. According to a poll conducted by Siena College for TA, 63% of NYC voters support closing streets to cars to open them to people; additionally, DOT polling earlier this year found that 81% of people polled want Broadway to be a permanent Open Street.

All of this points to the fact that the Open Streets Program has been successful, yet deeply flawed – reiterating just how important it is to gather data on its successes and failures in order to better fix its shortcomings. According to TA spokesperson Cory Epstein, “streets can be a pathway to recovery and can help in conquering all the city’s crises, and Open Streets need to be the center of that. We love Open Streets so much, we want them to succeed. Unless someone is tracking the data, we cannot improve the program. If metrics and data aren’t being captured and shared publicly, it’s hard to improve, which is why we’re putting it all out there now.” 

Responses 

So how has all of this data been received? Well, for one, the DOT has found and disseminated different numbers. According to its reports, there are officially 47 miles of Open Streets in NYC – nearly double what TA found. This being said, the DOT has also been vocal about the actions it is taking to ameliorate the situation, including a recent public engagement process launch that aims to improve the designs and rules of permanent outdoor dining setups. In the words of DOT spokesperson Seth Stein, “Open Streets were an emergency response to the pandemic, and now we are taking the necessary steps to make this program permanent and sustainable in the long term. Neighborhoods that applied to the program are already being supported with resources to make their beloved Open Streets permanent.” To clarify, Stein also added that the DOT is doing outreach in communities without BIDs or local groups to support the program. 

Aside from the DOT, several of the city’s political leaders have spoken out about the program. While Mayor de Blasio has been vocal about his continued support of the program, not many of his efforts have been particularly fruitful. For example, even though he convened a transportation advisory council to suggest ideas for a “transportation recovery,” nothing was done with any of the recommendations the group made after it met 18 times. Similarly, in his 2021 State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio explained that “equity and inclusion will be at the heart of the Open Streets expansion,” – but TA argues that has not materialized. This being said, de Blasio did sign legislation passed by the City Council that effectively required NYC to make the program permanent and to expand it in order to serve less wealthy neighborhoods that need them most. Another vocal leader is Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams, who has repeatedly voiced his support for the program, calling it a “vital lifeline” during the pandemic, but has also acknowledged that it has “room for improvement.” In his latest statement in response to TA’s report, Adams stated that “as this new report makes clear, the distribution of the program has been profoundly unequal, and Black and Brown New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs are far less likely to have access to an Open Street. As we consider what our city’s streetscape should look like post-COVID, we must do a better job of ensuring the benefits of Open Streets reach New Yorkers that need them most.” 

What Happens Now?

TA’s report has ultimately changed the course of the program. After a long summer of pandemic-related hardships, but also revelations regarding rampant inequality throughout the city, many are fed up with government-run programs altogether. But this should not discourage an overhaul of the program. According to Epstein, “the moral of the story is we know Open Streets work, but they need to work in many more areas. We have data showing they work, and legislation that can help them work, but this has been months and months of failed implementation and broken promises from the mayor. This report lays out the case that there should be no other delays, and why expanding and improving Open Streets is critical.” And to make the news easier to digest, TA has included recommendations on how to improve the program. Here are its most significant ideas:

  • Make every Open Street permanent and open 24/7 with better infrastructure and support; 
  • Lengthen all Open Streets to at least half a mile; 
  • Reduce on-street parking on Open Streets to discourage drivers from trying to enter; 
  • Target and prioritize neighborhoods put at a disadvantage by racist planning, higher air pollution, and higher rates of traffic crashes; 
  • And close a street outside every NYC school to create School Open Streets.

One can only hope that such changes will be made in an effort to preserve one of the most important contributions made by this city during the pandemic. 

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