It’s now been over 14 months since Mayor Bill de Blasio first introduced his Open Streets plan, which was initially intended to give pedestrians and cyclists more space to safely spread out during the early days of the pandemic. Since then, the program has blossomed into several successful offshoots, including Open Restaurants and Open Culture, and the City Council has passed legislation requiring that the city make Open Streets a permanent program and expand to serve less wealthy neighborhoods that need them most.
But a new report by Transportation Alternatives (TA) argues that 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.”
The group sent out hundreds of volunteer surveyors to visit every Open Street in the city at least once this summer, and 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. They defined an active Open Street as one where at least one surveyor “observed barricades in the street, during the hours and days listed by the DOT.” According to their report, there were no barricades or barriers stopping cars from entering and driving through the majority of streets during the designated open hours.
That means there are only 24 miles of functional Open Streets throughout the city, far less than the 100 miles de Blasio said was the city’s goal when he launched the program, and far less than the peak number of Open Streets the city hit late last summer, which was just under 70 miles.
The DOT, which recently launched a public engagement process to improve the designs and rules regarding permanent outdoor dining setups, disputed these numbers: they said there are officially 47 miles of Open Streets currently in the city.
“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,” said DOT spokesperson Seth Stein. “Neighborhoods that applied to the program are already being supported with resources to make their beloved Open Streets permanent.”
Stein added that the agency is doing outreach in communities without BIDs or local groups to support Open Streets.
Another spokesperson added that they question the methodology of TA’s surveying: “We actively and frequently check on the status of our Open Streets, and we’re confident that a lot of these streets are, in fact, operational – despite what a canvasser might have seen on one isolated visit,” said DOT spokesperson Alana Morales. “There are also Open Streets that were recently updated on our maps, which wouldn’t have been counted in TA’s report.”
The TA report also found that the majority of non-operational Open Streets were in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In the Bronx, they found that 84 percent of listed Open Streets did not exist in practice; in Queens and Brooklyn, they found that 69 and 60 percent of listed Open Streets were not functional.
They also found that just one in five New Yorkers live within walking distance of an active Open Street, and that there was an unequal distribution of Open Streets in wealthier neighborhoods and areas. 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.
“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,” Cory Epstein, spokesperson for TA, told Gothamist today. “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 isn’t being captured and shared publicly, it’s hard to improve, which is why we’re putting it all out there now.”
This new report comes a little over a year since Transportation Alternative’s last progress report on the program. In the summer of 2020, just a few months into Open Streets’ implementation, the group argued that de Blasio’s plan “lack[ed] vision and ambition,” and was essentially “a disconnected network of public space islands with management challenges.”
“The moral of the story is we know Open Streets work, but they need to work in many more areas,” said Epstein. “We have data showing they work, and legislation that can help them work, but this has been months and month 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.”
The report includes several examples of the ways Open Streets has improved life in the city: cyclist injuries decreased 17 percent on Open Streets while increasing 20 percent citywide over the last year; both motorist and pedestrian injuries fell more on Open Streets than citywide as well. And as de Blasio has touted, over 100,000 restaurant industry jobs have been saved thanks to outdoor dining opportunities, with only .38% of street space used by Open Streets
A poll by Siena College conducted for TA found that 63 percent of NYC voters support closing streets to cars to open them to people, including over 50 percent of car owners. DOT polling earlier this year found that 81 percent of people polled want Broadway to be a permanent Open Street.
Among TA’s recommendations on how to improve the program: 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.
You can read the full report here.
Epstein added even though the mayor convened a transportation advisory council to suggest ideas for a “transportation recovery,” de Blasio did nothing with any of the recommendations the group made after it met 18 times.
In his State of the City address this year, de Blasio said that “equity and inclusion will be at the heart of the Open Streets expansion,” but TA argues that has not come to pass. “We hope the next administration has more focus on the streets and our recovery, and follows through on that legislation which passed recently,” Epstein added.
Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams, who previously expressed to Gothamist his support for continuing the Open Streets program if he becomes mayor, said in a statement that the program has been a “vital lifeline” during the pandemic, but has room for improvement.
“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,” Adams said. “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.”