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Why New York City Is Banning Cars From Some Streets - Cat Smith

HAYLEY ZHAO, HOST: When the pandemic hit last year, crowded sidewalks and other public spaces suddenly felt dangerous. Lots of neighborhoods don’t have good access to parks. The only space left in the city -- were the streets. So the city launched the Open Streets program, banning traffic from certain blocks, to give people more places to hang out. But as Cat Smith reports, as the city reopens, it’s unclear how to keep the program going -- and who will do the work to make it happen.

CAT SMITH, BYLINE: 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights Queens is lined by tall leafy trees. Underneath the canopy on a recent afternoon, Oscar Escobar leads a group of Salsa dancers.

OSCAR ESCOBAR: I love the Open Street, because it’s amazing.

SMITH: Each morning at 8 a.m., over a mile of this avenue is transformed into a no-car zone. Barricades block the intersections until 8 p.m. Nearby, 53 year old Darlene Canino is standing in her driveway, watching pedestrians and smoking a cigar.

CANINO: Everybody comes out, you get to know a lot of people, people that I never knew that live so close by. I enjoy it.

SMITH: Leah Diaz is learning how to roller skate. She’s 7 years old and covered head to toe in protective gear.

DIAZ: You know, if I keep falling -- ahhhhhh -- it’s really going bad, but I think it’s going good.

SMITH: Jesse Willmon [WILL-MIN] watches his kids bounce a basketball nearby. He says, now they can run straight out their front door and play in the Open Street.

WILLMON: There’s always been a lack of park in the neighborhood, and now it’s like all of a sudden we’ve got a brand new park.

SMITH: You can find Open Streets like this one in Jackson Heights scattered all across the five boroughs -- over 60 miles of road in total. Residents I spoke with also believe Open Streets make biking and walking safer, and reduce air pollution in their neighborhoods.

Gib Veconi works with a community group that runs two Open Streets in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Dozens of these groups exist throughout the city -- and run the streets. Veconi says he’s amazed by the level of community support.

VECONI: Sometimes you have a terrible crisis ... but something really important comes out of it. Something that maybe no one would have considered doing before the crisis. And Open Streets is like that.

SMITH: Owen Gutfreund is a professor of urban planning at Hunter College. He says car-free streets aren’t revolutionary. In fact, he says streets have been around a lot longer than cars.

GUTFREUND: And streets have been used as marketplaces, as play place spaces, and meeting spaces, for hundreds of years. And it's only in the last hundred years that they've been primarily devoted to cars.

SMITH: The city began Open Streets as a short-term, temporary solution in the pandemic. But residents liked them so much, they lobbied the city to make them permanent. So far, Mayor De Blasio agrees -- last month at a press conference, he said the program was a surprising success.

DE BLASIO: We made the decision after the experience in 2020 to make Open Streets permanent.

SMITH: But it’s unclear how that will work. On Monday, the mayor proposed $4 million for the program for next fiscal year. The funding would provide staffing help for cleanup and barricade maintenance. The city council is expected to vote on a bill today that would require the Department of Transportation to continue the program and provide resources as available. Kyle Gorman is a manager at the Department of Transportation who oversees the Open Streets. He says the city knows that the program needs more money and manpower to continue.

GORMAN: We are committed to the long-term sustainability, viability and success of this program.

SMITH: Meanwhile, most open streets are still staffed by neighborhood volunteers. They set up barricades that block cars every morning and take them down at night. They also pay out of pocket for programs like yoga classes or block parties. And some residents say it’s a burden to continue providing those resources.

Jim Burke co-founded the volunteer group of about 40 people that run the Open Street on 34th Ave in Jackson Heights. He says he was out there every morning, helping move the barricades, until one day last October.

BURKE: I was sipping my coffee, I’d just finished the barricade -- and BOOM!

SMITH: He had a massive heart attack.

BURKE: And luckily, there were two volunteers that were also coming from different directions, closing the streets. And they helped. And then someone called their son and got their son to come pick me up and bring me close by, to Elmhurst Hospital. And that saved my life.

LYDON: I think it's been extremely challenging given the time requirement, the physical labor requirement.

SMITH: Mike Lydon [LIE-DIN] is an urban planner at the Brooklyn-based firm Street Plans. He consults for two community groups that run Open Streets, one in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He says the city’s hands-off approach thus far has put poor groups at a disadvantage.

LYDON: If you are in a wealthier neighborhood where you have a larger number of people working from home, who’re able to walk outside, put a barricade back in place, who’re able to observe the street, who have resources and friends with resources to help raise funds to make sure these streets are a success and add programming. The high burden is not shared equitably.

SMITH: Gutfreund [GOOD-FRIEND], the college professor, also worries about the city’s hands-off approach to Open Streets. He says during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the city similarly backed away from managing its parks.

GUTFREUND: And a lot of the city's parks are now run by private nonprofits that are dependent on voluntary participation, philanthropically, from the public. And I worry that leaving the Open Streets management, if the city continues to abdicate, it's just gonna become little fiefdoms.

SMITH: Back on 34th Avenue, Burke says that even though he doesn't do the barricades anymore, he's still hosting group activities. Like bike rides.

BURKE: I’ve done every single bike ride, except the very first one right after my heart attack. Not bad, right?

SMITH: Meanwhile, the city is encouraging neighborhood groups to continue working on their own, and also to apply for new streets to add to the program.

Cat Smith, Columbia Radio News.


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