By Winnie Hu
August 11, 2022
When city life was throttled by the pandemic, cars were removed from five blocks of 31st Avenue in Astoria, Queens, to make way for fresh-air strolling and socializing.
This was a newly minted “open street,” part of an initiative rolled out by New York City in 2020 to give cramped apartment dwellers more room to spread out. Friends reunited over coffee and takeout. Families barbecued on portable grills. Children rode bicycles without having to look out for cars.
But Astoria is a packed neighborhood, with many car owners and businesses. Eventually, as the city reopened, traffic sneaked back as drivers squeezed past the barriers. So last year, the five blocks of open streets on 31st Avenue were reduced to two, and the area became more of a plaza.
Now the tables and chairs come out only on weekends. Still, the two blocks fill up regularly. Neighbors sit and read, work on laptops, do yoga, play cornhole. “It would be unusual to walk past and not see people,” said Cormac Nataro, 28, a digital content strategist who lives nearby.
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. City officials are looking for ways to improve the program, which reached a peak of 83 miles of open streets but now is down to slightly over 20 miles, according to a recent New York Times analysis.
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. (Officials said they were in the process of adding five miles around the city.
“Coming out of Covid, people really thought of open streets as a civic movement,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. “I’m worried it’s withering on the vine. We need to prioritize this.”
Across the country, the enthusiasm for car-free streets has waned as businesses have reopened and people have resumed their lives outside of their homes, which means more cars on the roads. 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.
New York, on the other hand, made the open streets program permanent last year after a handful of breakout successes, including 34th Avenue in Queens, Vanderbilt Avenue and Berry Street in Brooklyn, and Dyckman Street in Manhattan, a result of the tireless efforts of residents, community groups, businesses and transportation and open space advocates. But many other open streets have struggled, been scaled back or have been scratched entirely.
A popular Italian-style piazza on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx went from three blocks in 2020 to one block this May, so that 90 curbside parking spots could be freed up. “People drive to us,” said Peter Madonia, the chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District, which tries to balance the open street with the needs of businesses and customers. “We still have a piazza, it’s just smaller.”
In Jackson Heights, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the open streets have drawn a backlash from some residents who say they make it more difficult to drive, find parking and get deliveries. They also create gridlock on surrounding streets, residents say. Greenpoint drivers essentially took back two open streets on Driggs Avenue and Russell Street after metal barriers were vandalized, run over and dumped into Newtown Creek.
“The more open streets there are, the harder it is for drivers to navigate,” said Assemblyman David I. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, who has received complaints about the program. “There are still parts of New York City where people rely on their cars, and it’s becoming increasingly anti-car in the city.”
Others argue that with traffic deaths surging, open streets make navigating the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists. They can also bring health and environmental benefits, especially to poor neighborhoods with few parks.
“Cars remain king,” said Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group which reported on the inequitable distribution of open streets. “We need more open streets, not less, to support New Yorkers and our recovery.”
Ydanis Rodriguez, the city’s transportation commissioner, said New York is committed to expanding and investing in the program. “Open streets are clearly here to stay as we reimagine our public spaces with a focus on equity and quality,” he said.
City officials and community groups are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t in what is still a new initiative. Though the city approves open streets and offers some money and support, the program is largely a grass-roots effort among residents, businesses and community groups that decide how to pay for and run them.
Many of the initial open streets were planned for on paper but never really took, city officials said. They also realized that others, like Carlton Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, were needed instead to carry traffic as the city recovered and that people still had access to other open streets close by.
In some cases, officials added, there have been lasting changes even when open streets have not worked out. Cars on Parkside Avenue, a major east-west Brooklyn route, now share the roadway with a protected bike lane, for example. Parking spots on 70th Road in Forest Hills, Queens, continue to be used for outdoor dining.
The city spends about $7 million annually on open streets, including nearly $1 million on activities and programming, like a pop-up circus that has performed around the city. It gave out $20,000 in grants to help cover operations and programs on 88 open streets this year and provides barriers, tables and chairs for many sites.
Trash and messy borders have become an issue in some areas. Last year, the city hired the Horticultural Society of New York, a nonprofit, to send workers to set up and take down barriers, clean up trash and provide gardening services along 26 open streets, including Avenue B on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
“That’s been a big help; I don’t think we could have continued without it,” said Laura Sewell, a co-founder of the Loisaida Open Streets Community Coalition, which runs the one on Avenue B. With the help, volunteers can now focus on programming, including Zumba and Bollywood-syle fitness classes, she said.
Under a 2021 law, the city must maintain at least 20 open streets in underserved areas, and a minimum of 10 of those are to be five blocks or longer. City officials said they had already met the first part of that regulation, with 30 open streets in neighborhoods that are underserved by the initiative, but only six of these span at least five blocks.
Street Lab, a nonprofit that is working with the city to develop new open streets, has organized community groups to help run 11 new sites. On East 141st Street in the Bronx, an open street next to a housing project brings people together every Saturday for basketball games, music and story hours with Boogie Down Books, a local business.
Leslie Davol, Street Lab’s executive director, said that many communities want an open street but do not have an organizing force to take it on. “It is hard going,” she said. “Most successful open streets have a community group behind it that has put in physical labor, time and even funds.”
Michael Brady, the executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District in the South Bronx, knows just how hard it is. He scrambles to raise $600,000 a year in donations to pay for a pair of open streets on Alexander Avenue and Willis Avenue, which have evolved into something like town squares, he said.
Mr. Brady has learned that strong programming helps. “We’re not closing the streets for the sake of closing streets,” he said, adding that yoga and CrossFit classes, as well as Salsa Saturdays with live bands — all listed on a monthly program schedule — have bolstered foot traffic to stores and restaurants.
In Brooklyn, a six-block open street on Vanderbilt Avenue started by residents in 2020 to help struggling restaurants has grown into a quasi-professional operation. It has an annual budget of more than $100,000, raised from various sources, including a GoFundMe campaign. Most of that goes to pay for a “marshal team” to move barriers and cones, empty trash bins and help maintain safety.
A committee of about 50 volunteers holds regular meetings on operations, programming, restaurant relations, development and fund-raising. There is even a dedicated Slack channel. “It’s been a learning process,” said Megan Robinson, the co-chairwoman of the committee. “None of us knew how to do this in the beginning.”
City officials have sought to shore up open streets with design and infrastructure improvements. They turned a block of Dyckman Street into a full-time pedestrian plaza and are working to create loading zones on cross streets along Vanderbilt Avenue for deliveries.
But the legacy of the initiative may be less about reshaping streets and more about persuading people to see them as valuable public spaces. Removing cars from a street, said Lauren Andres, a professor of planning and urban transformations at University College London, can turn it into “a space where people can interact and learn and play.”
In Astoria, 31st Avenue has been busier than ever. Hundreds of people descend on its two car-free blocks for play dates, clothing swaps and free bike repairs. Nearly 60 local artisans sell items like candles, soaps and board games at a monthly market, in exchange for making donations — totaling $2,500 to $3,000 — to the Astoria Food Pantry.
“Almost every weekend, we have more people,” said Mr. Nataro, a volunteer who is happy with the shorter open street. “For us, it was definitely sacrificing quantity for quality.”