Gotham Gazette

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Uncurb Our Enthusiasm: How the City Can Better Help Restaurants and Keep New Yorkers Moving


Outdoor dining is proving successful (photo: @NYC_DOT)

With the City’s popular Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, the de Blasio administration has taken important steps forward to support New Yorkers during the pandemic, helping to ensure that people, not just cars, have much needed access to our streets. 

Meanwhile, the success of these programs have been amplified by the continued growth of biking as a safe, socially distanced form of transportation, and by bikeshare’s ongoing expansion into the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. In New York City and elsewhere, restaurants have a long history of prospering in areas that prioritize walking, biking, and mass transit (studies show that restaurants in New York increase sales after Citi Bike stations are installed nearby, and bike lanes have shown to increase retail sales by up to 49%). This current moment is no different - if anything, the complementary nature of good street uses has never been more important.

It’s heartening to see that the city’s outdoor dining program is expected to continue into 2021 and we believe that the Department of Transportation (DOT) can make it even more effective. Specifically, DOT should develop policies addressing curbside space as part of the growing Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs that ensure all new users of our streets, whether restaurants, retail, cultural institutions, and schools can co-exist in limited space, and, most importantly, not disrupt our critical transportation system, including Citi Bike stations. 

While the city’s current approach to outdoor dining approvals and regulation has come with the benefit of flexibility and speed, it has also left a dearth of guidance on how to resolve complicated and unique situations that some businesses and residents may face. Over the last few weeks, as outdoor dining has continued to thrive, and as cyclists use bikeshare more and more, there have been a few instances where these popular users of streetspace have come into unnecessary conflict with each other. Restaurants found themselves unable to take advantage of the outdoor dining program because they were told by the city that the existence of transportation infrastructure like Citi Bike docks, loading zones, or bus stops precluded their ability to participate in the program. 

Combined, outdoor dining and bikeshare stations take up a small fraction of our city’s curb space: Citi Bike docking stations account for just 0.5% of curb space within the footprint of the bikeshare system’s service area. And according to Meera Joshi at Sam Schwartz Engineering, curbside dining eats up a similarly miniscule piece of the streetscape pie, occupying only 0.3% of curbspace.  

Given how integral both services are to our city, and how little space they take up, the city needs to make more space available and be more creative about the footprint of outdoor dining. Specifically, the city should look to take more free parking, which currently occupies around 75% of curbside space in New York City, as a lifeline to struggling businesses and critical transportation modes like biking and buses.  

Moving forward, we encourage the city to change the rules that limit outdoor dining to the spaces immediately in front of a restaurant’s building frontage. Instead, restaurants that may be currently limited or blocked from outdoor dining space due to the placement of critical infrastructure, should be able to access adjacent and available curbside space. We believe that this simple addition will both support our hospitality industry and keep New Yorkers moving. 

The future of New York City requires our leaders to reimagine our assets, including street and curb space, in support of tools that can benefit all New Yorkers.

Tom Birchard is the Owner of Veselka Restaurant. Danny Harris is Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @veselkanyc and @DannyHarris_TA.

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