Gotham Gazette

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Open City Streets to Promote Social Distancing and Public Health

car free open streets

Car free day 2019 (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing an unprecedented challenge to New Yorkers. As we face this surreal moment together, we are also learning what it means to practice “social distancing” — and, inevitably, it has not gone perfectly. Case in point: we have taken to city parks in astonishing numbers, creating crowds and density that risk spreading the very virus we’re trying to fight.

Is it possible for New Yorkers to maintain a safe distance and “flatten the curve” without foregoing fresh air? Put another way, can we practice good public health without sacrificing personal physical and mental health?

Yes, we can: by repurposing some of our currently underutilized streets into pedestrian boulevards, we can take the pressure off our park space and reduce pedestrian density.

While our parks become more crowded -- Spring is also upon us, after all -- New York City’s streets are experiencing an extraordinary decline in vehicle traffic. According to the New York Times, weekday afternoon rush-hour traffic recently moved 36 percent faster, and carbon monoxide emissions fell more than 50 percent.

The shrinking street space used by cars and trucks means we can dedicate more space to pedestrians, reduce the crowding in our parks, and allow New Yorkers to get a respite from the indoors while keeping a safe distance. To do this, city government should identify specific streets on which non-essential vehicles are prohibited, and dedicate that space to pedestrians.

We already know how to achieve this. For three Saturdays in the summer, New York City kicks cars out of a nearly seven-mile stretch of Park Avenue in Manhattan, from downtown to 72nd Street on the Upper East Side, and makes a car-free connection to Central Park along 72nd Street. That’s a model to build on now. And we wouldn’t be alone in expanding a summer streets program to promote social distancing. Philadelphia, for example, recently closed a long stretch of its bustling MLK Jr. Drive indefinitely to vehicular traffic.

Local leaders are beginning to see the wisdom in pedestrianizing streets. On March 20, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for a “Summer Streets like program to give more room for children and adults to use our streets free from cars to allow for the social distancing needed.” Two days later, on Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo called on city leaders to reduce overcrowding in city parks, including “open[ing] streets to reduce density.” “That's where people should be — in open space areas, not in dense locations," the governor added.

New Yorkers must remember that staying home is absolutely imperative. But, when going outside, we should heed the governor’s recent executive order: “individuals should limit outdoor recreational activities to non-contact and avoid activities where they come in close contact with other people.” In other words, solitary exercise can promote physical and mental health, but no one should risk spreading coronavirus by engaging in group recreational activities.

The health benefits of even a short walk outside cannot be overstated. Decades of data underscore the correlation between physical activity and improved cardiovascular, bone, and lung health. Exercise has also been correlated with a decreased rate of depression and improved mental health. While there is no definitive data that outdoor recreation is superior to indoor activity, New York City gyms are (appropriately) closed and many New Yorkers barely have room for a futon, let alone space to exercise, in their apartments. Furthermore, outdoor exposure itself may have benefits on sleepcognitive function, and mental health.

To be clear: recommending solitary recreation does not equate with outdoor social gatherings. Outdoor recreation should still be limited in time (common recommendations of 30-45 minutes of aerobic activity 3-5 times per week should be sufficient) and social distancing remains the first priority. Furthermore, for older adults and those with significant preexisting conditions the risk of any outdoor exposure right now may still outweigh the potential benefits. Even with excellent hand hygiene and preventative techniques, COVID-19’s transmissibility and surface stability make it dangerously easy to contract.

The city should not view pedestrianized streets in a vacuum. Rather, city leaders should take a holistic view of how our streets can both help New Yorkers run essential errands and get fresh air—at a safe distance.

First, we need more protected bike lanes, particularly for the delivery cyclists we ask so much of while restaurants close to dine-in customers. Second, we need to mitigate existing pedestrian crowding. The narrow pedestrian paths of the Central Park transverse roads connecting the Upper West Side and Upper East Side are a notable example. With vehicle usage depressed, the city should create wider spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.

Third, the city’s bridges need attention. On the Queensboro Bridge, cyclists and pedestrians have long shared the same extremely crowded path. The Department of Transportation can reduce that density by opening the bridge’s South Outer Roadway to pedestrians. (Disclosure: one of us, Billy Freeland, is a member of Manhattan Community Board 8, which recently asked DOT to study the feasibility of such a path. Billy is writing here in his individual capacity.)

Any plan to pedestrianize streets should be mindful of other vital needs. In addition to our moral obligation to ensure a protected bike lane that treats delivery cyclists with dignity and respect, pedestrianized spaces must ensure access for emergency vehicles. The city will also need to accommodate delivery trucks that stock supermarkets and other open stores, perhaps with dedicated delivery times early and late in the day. The Department of Transportation is well-equipped to consider and address these concerns, as it has done before.

We are all in this together. And we are all figuring this out together. Let’s look out for our neighbors, practice social distancing, and find creative ways to remain connected. And, yes, let’s open our streets to people.

Billy Freeland is an attorney and Democratic activist, and on Twitter at @policyjunkie. Dr. Philip Solomon is a geriatrician at a New York City health system.

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