The Tide Has Turned Against Open Streets

Once a promising development for advocates pushing for a less car-centric future in cities, the open streets movement has ceded significant ground to cars since the height of the pandemic.

2 minute read

August 14, 2022, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

People gather on a street with no cars during the L.E.A.F. Festival of Flowers in the Meatpacking District of New York City.

rblmfr / Shutterstock

Winnie Hu reports for the New York Times about the slow retreat of New York City’s Open Streets initiative:

The city’s Open Streets initiative, which bans or restricts traffic at designated hours up to seven days a week year-round, became one of the few bright spots during the pandemic. But two and a half years later, this ambitious experiment has turned out to be much harder to maintain than expected. 

The proof is in the numbers: Former Mayor Bill de Blasio targeted 100 miles of open streets and made the program permanent in September 2020. The program peaked at 83 miles, but there are now only 20 miles of open streets in the city. “Manhattan has the most open streets, with 8.8 miles, followed by Brooklyn, with 7.6 miles, and Queens, three miles. The Bronx and Staten Island each has less than a half-mile,” writes Hu.

The narrative arc of New York's Open Streets program mirrors a retreat by a planned expansion of bus priority around the city. The de Blasio administration promised a 20 miles of bus priority lanes in June 2020, just to retreat from that planned scale as the calendar changed months, and years—just another pandemic-era initiative that could have turned the tide against car-centric planning in the public realm.

As noted by Hu, open streets programs have had a hard time hanging on in cities all over the country: “Oakland, Calif., which set a national standard with its temporary, pandemic-era “slow streets,” phased them out this year, while nearby Berkeley wound down its “healthy streets” last year. Chicago replaced its “shared streets” with other initiatives, including expanded outdoor dining and a series of one-day open boulevards.”

The source article below documents the political pushback from drivers that has managed to reverse the Open Streets trend, as well as some of the planning challenges that still surround open streets programs, such as trash collection, programming, and equity. There are also examples of “breakout successes” to offer, including 34th Avenue in QueensVanderbilt Avenue and Berry Street in Brooklyn, and Dyckman Street in Manhattan, according to Hu.

Thursday, August 11, 2022 in The New York Times

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