Will Cars Rule the Roads in Post-Pandemic New York?

Newly emboldened, many New Yorkers want to repurpose streets for walking, biking, dining and schools, even as traffic returns.

Restaurants have taken over Dyckman Street in northern Manhattan, which has been temporarily closed to cars.
Restaurants have taken over Dyckman Street in northern Manhattan, which has been temporarily closed to cars.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

By Winnie Hu and Nate Schweber, NYTimes.com Aug. 10, 2020

When New York went into lockdown five months ago to contain the virus, traffic virtually disappeared, and the mostly deserted streets suddenly became a vast trove of open space in one of the world’s most crowded cities.

But now as New York slowly recovers and cars have started to return, a battle for the 6,000 miles of city streets is just beginning.

Desperate restaurant owners have put out tables and chairs and want to keep them there. Anxious parents see the streets as a solution to crowded indoor classrooms. Cyclists and pedestrians are demanding more safe corridors as their numbers soar. And some virus-wary commuters are avoiding public transit and climbing into cars to protect their health.

Competition for New York’s streets is nothing new — there have been growing calls in recent years to push cars aside — but the pandemic has emboldened more people than ever to stake their claim to a piece of asphalt and force a sweeping reimagining of the urban grid.

Under pressure from advocates for open spaces and the restaurant industry, the city has temporarily excluded cars from more than 70 miles of open streets for social distancing, biking and outdoor dining.

After largely disappearing from the streets, traffic has started to rebound from pre-pandemic levels even with many offices still largely devoid of workers. 
After largely disappearing from the streets, traffic has started to rebound from pre-pandemic levels even with many offices still largely devoid of workers. Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“The longstanding tension between those who see cars as evil and those who see cars as essential has been heightened by the pandemic because usable outdoor space is more crucial than ever,” said Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and design.

City officials have not presented any overall vision or comprehensive plan for redesigning the streets to accommodate more uses and have said they are waiting to see emerging traffic patterns as more people return to work and schools open for some in-person learning.

For now, they have taken a more piecemeal approach, including adding batches of open streets every few weeks and announcing five new busways to speed up service by taking cars off busy arteries. They have also expanded temporary outdoor dining to help restaurants, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said the dining setups would return after the winter.

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“I think the fact is we want to keep expanding every conceivable option and alternative, and we’ve seen how effective things like open streets have been,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters recently. “We keep expanding that, we keep expanding bike lanes. We want to see how far we can take both of them.”

A pedestrian plaza set up along 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, has become popular, and residents want it to be made permanent. 
A pedestrian plaza set up along 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, has become popular, and residents want it to be made permanent. Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But critics — many of whom have viewed Mr. de Blasio as a pro-driver mayor — have faulted what some describe as the city’s reactionary approach and contend that the moment is ripe for an ambitious blueprint, much like other cities are adopting to permanently redraw the streetscape.

“I think we’re missing a huge opportunity,” said Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former city transportation official. “This is the time to reconfigure the streets. Traffic will fill however much — or however little — street space it’s allotted. Now is the time to literally redraw the lines.”

Other cities have taken bolder steps. London has embarked on a plan to accommodate a surge in pedestrians and cyclists by creating new walking and biking routes, widening sidewalks and limiting traffic on residential streets — some of which could become permanent. And in Paris, officials are moving to add more than 400 miles of new bike lanes across the metro region.

In New York, the growing conflict over the use of the streets will not simply end with the pandemic, Mr. Kayden said, since elected leaders, community activists, transportation experts and others who have long sought to repurpose roads for uses other than cars “will not want to give up their newly captured territory.”

Roberto Perez Rosado, 72, and his neighbors in park-starved Jackson Heights, Queens, are vowing to fight to keep a promenade that was opened on 34th Avenue during the pandemic. “If they take it away we will be petitioning, we will be going to meetings, we will be active on the streets,” he said.

Drivers are pushing back, too. Kenny Otano, an ironworker, said that dividing up the streets has made traffic worse. “One lane is thrown out for buses, half a lane is thrown out for bikes, and the worst thing is the restaurants,” said Mr. Otano, 50. “It creates more traffic. Five lanes becomes three.”

“If they take it away we will be petitioning, we will be going to meetings, we will be active on the streets,” said a Jackson Heights resident about the 34th Avenue promenade.
“If they take it away we will be petitioning, we will be going to meetings, we will be active on the streets,” said a Jackson Heights resident about the 34th Avenue promenade.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Leslie Andre Howard, 35, a contractor from Queens, has a kidney condition and has been driving to work because he does not want to take the subway during the outbreak. His blue minivan, he said, “feels safer and you’re more in control.”

Some cyclists and transportation advocates have criticized the city for creating a series of disconnected open streets instead of building a comprehensive network of continuous routes and public spaces. The result has been confusion and conflict at times among groups trying to use the same space, including bike lanes blocked by outdoor restaurant seating.

William Cazorla, 38, a cyclist, described crashing to avoid running into people gathered around an outdoor dining spot in Brooklyn. “I took the dive, self-sacrifice you maybe would say,” he said.

Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, said, “If we all have to fight for table scraps, the city is pitting us against each other rather than leaning on us as partners.”

City officials said they have moved more quickly than they have been given credit for to make significant changes, including expanding outdoor dining to every corner of the city.

Some people are choosing to drive rather than take public transit because of fear of being exposed to the virus.
Some people are choosing to drive rather than take public transit because of fear of being exposed to the virus.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“We’ve used this crisis to make sweeping and popular changes to the urban landscape,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “There’s always more to do. But we’ve responded to New Yorkers’ calls for more public space, and we’re excited to keep going.”

City officials said they were also monitoring traffic and were prepared to take strict measures if the gridlock becomes acute, including restricting vehicles entering the city by their license plate numbers or requiring cars to have at least two occupants. Vehicle occupancy restrictions were imposed after the September 11, 2001, terror attack in Lower Manhattan.The Coronavirus Outbreak ›

  • Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
    • Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in CaliforniaTexas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
  • I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
  • I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
    • The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
  • What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
  • What is school going to look like in September?
    • It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learningmakeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.

Even though many offices and businesses are still closed and people are working from home, New York’s streets, which had been quiet for weeks, are refilling again with cars and trucks. Traffic volumes have more than doubled at some of the busiest bridge and tunnel crossings from New Jersey to just below pre-pandemic levels.

Demand for monthly parking spots in the city is also soaring, suggesting that some workers are choosing cars over the subway, buses or trains. SpotHero, a digital parking marketplace, has seen monthly bookings in lots and garages increase 123 percent in early July from the same period a year ago. The average monthly parking price has also risen to $351 from $288.

The traffic is also encroaching on public transit, with average speeds declining on public buses, which carry many essential and low-income workers to Manhattan from so-called subway deserts.

“It’s really a bad sign,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “It means the bus is a less useful way of getting around.’’

Even before the pandemic, congestion already exacted a huge financial toll, costing the New York region an estimated $20 billion a year in lost worker productivity and higher fuel and operating expenses, according to the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group.

If transit riders stay away in significant numbers, that would also erode fare revenue from a public transit system facing its worst financial crisis in decades.

At the same time, New York’s ambitious plan to cut down on traffic by imposing a fee on cars and trucks entering the busiest parts of Manhattan has stalled. That congestion pricing plan, which was expected to start early next year and raise money for public transit, has been delayed for at least a year by a federal review.

“We’ve been talking about traffic and congestion for years and we haven’t done enough about it,” said Carlo A. Scissura, the president and chief executive of the New York Building Congress, a trade association for the building industry. “Now, we’re at a moment of reckoning. We need to come together and have a plan for moving forward.”

Brad Lander, a councilman from Brooklyn, is supporting parents who want to use streets around schools for classes and activities. “You’re reimagining your city’s open spaces in a way that it feels like it belongs to people on foot and on bikes,” he said. “It feels, in my opinion, like a crusade for a more sustainable city.”

In northern Manhattan, dozens of restaurant owners are fighting to keep a temporary outdoor dining plaza on Dyckman Street. “We need it to survive,” said Susana Osorio, who pays $63,000 a month in rent for her two restaurants.

At Roof Top Republica, there is outdoor seating for 100 customers under twinkling lights, three times more than inside the small Dominican restaurant. The owner, Victor Sanchez, 52, said he is selling more meals than before the pandemic.

“I think it should be a permanent thing,” he said. “There’s going be a fight for the streets, definitely.”

Winnie Hu is a reporter on the Metro desk, focusing on transportation and infrastructure stories. She has also covered education, politics in City Hall and Albany, and the Bronx and upstate New York since joining the Times in 1999. @WinnHuA version of this article appears in print on Aug. 11, 2020, Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Turn Lane, Bike Path or Cafe? The Struggle Grows. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe