Trying to Maintain Social Distancing on New York City Sidewalks? Good Luck.

Many New York City sidewalks don’t have enough space to practice social distancing. City Hall says that’s our problem, not theirs.
April 9, 2020, 5:33pm
Tape measure on ground
Shayla Love

On Wednesday, New York City’s Department of City Planning (DCP) tweeted a guide for how to maintain proper social distancing on the city’s sidewalks. Using regular objects like tree pits, benches, and sidewalk joints, pedestrians can quickly judge how far they are from one another.

In a follow-up tweet, DCP said that “If you’re less than 6 feet, like the pairs in this photo, it should only be with someone who shares your living space.”

Six feet has become the magic number when going outside. Public health officials around the world are advising fresh air-seekers and grocery shoppers to maintain six feet of distance from everyone else in order to prevent others from breathing in droplets of the coronavirus. But six feet is easier said than done in New York City. Many neighborhood sidewalks are not like the ones in the photo and are in fact too narrow to maintain proper social distancing.

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Although the DCP tweet was well-intentioned, it was met with indignation from many New Yorkers who have been demanding the city close off streets and parking spaces from cars in order to make up for the shortcomings of our sidewalks. In order to allow pedestrians to pass with the necessary distance, the argument goes, the city ought to be taking space away from vehicles at a time where traffic has plummeted, neighborhood parks are crowded, and playgrounds have been shuttered.

On top of that, the need for social distancing in New York right now is arguably greater than anywhere else in the country. As of this writing, 20,474 New Yorkers have been hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,260 people have died from the virus, according to the city’s Department of Health. The entire city is on edge with angst about the health of our family and friends. Most everyone is driving themselves crazy with what measures we can and must take to protect our neighbors.

To that end, DCP’s tweet rubbed some New Yorkers the wrong way for implying social distancing is solely a personal choice—and a failure to abide by it a personal failing—rather than a geometrical problem about how street space is allocated. In response to DCP’s tweet, Doug Gordon, a safe streets activist (no relation to this reporter), measured his own sidewalk. He found that, with tree pits every few feet, the functional walking space was only five feet wide, making it impossible to abide by the city’s social distancing requirements on his block. Meanwhile, parking lanes took up seven feet of space while a (mostly unused) travel lane took up 12 feet.

Inspired by Gordon’s experiment, Motherboard asked 17 New Yorkers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens to measure the sidewalks directly outside their apartments. The results largely echo Gordon’s findings. Although 12 of the 17 sidewalks measured were at least 10 feet wide from curb to private property—in theory wide enough for passing pedestrians to maintain the necessary distance—the actual walking space was much smaller. In total, 12 of the 17 sidewalks (70 percent) had less than six feet of navigable walking space due to permanent obstructions like tree pits, construction scaffolding, or basement access gates. Plus, New York City’s garbage collection system mandates we put our trash on the sidewalk for extended periods, clogging walking space even more with semi-permanent garbage bags.

Want to help Motherboard's reporting on social distancing on American sidewalks? Measure your sidewalk and fill out this form.

Routine real-world situations narrow that space even further. A human being is about two feet wide, give or take. Dog-walkers, joggers, couples walking together, parents with kids either in or out of strollers, adults with carts full of groceries all make social distancing that much more challenging. It is simply not possible to social distance on most New York City sidewalks.

“We’re seeing what happens when public service announcements become a substitute for public policy,” Gordon told Motherboard. “Elected officials can do more than offer gentle suggestions or even stern finger wagging; they can create the conditions on the ground that make safe social distancing possible.”

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Nevertheless, the city has thus far opted solely for finger-wagging, has done virtually nothing to provide more space for pedestrians, and, with the closing of playgrounds, has reduced the amount of safe space that can be used. A pilot program that pedestrianized a total of 1.5 miles of streets throughout the entire city, which has more than 6,000 miles of roads, was killed after just two weeks.

In part, this initiative was cancelled because the city no longer has enough healthy cops to enforce social distancing. The fact that the city required dozens of cops to be stationed at these open streets underscores the city’s stick-heavy approach to social distancing, which has included threats of fines, the closures of playgrounds, and regular patrolling by armed police officers. So far, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has rejected any effort to give people more space in which to distance.

Some New Yorkers are puzzled by this approach. “Most New Yorkers don’t own cars, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at how space is allocated on our streets,” said Danny Harris, executive director for the non-profit Transportation Alternatives. “New Yorkers and people in cities across the country are realizing that the scraps of space pedestrians have been given is dangerously inadequate.”

Indeed, many other cities are not only realizing how much space is given to cars relative to pedestrians, but doing something about it. New York City’s law-and-order approach to social distancing is in stark contrast to the measures other cities big and small around the world have adopted that give pedestrians and cyclists more space to be outside safely. Mike Lyndon, founder of the planning and research firm Street Plans, has been tracking Covid-related street closures in North America and found that four cities (Minneapolis, Denver, Louisville, Vancouver, and Portland) have closed off more than 10 miles of roads. Montreal closed off a parking lane on a 1.6-mile stretch of Mont-Royal Avenue. Cities from Brookline, Massachusetts to Berlin, Germany have taken similar measures.

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It’s not just progressive urban centers that have repurposed street space for people. Dan Flannery, who lives in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn but is staying with his parents at a beach town in Central New Jersey, told Motherboard he’s flabbergasted by the city’s lackadaisical response, particularly when juxtaposed to the wealthy, Republican enclave he’s staying in now. Flannery said many towns along the Jersey shore have closed off boardwalks but instituted no-parking policies on nearby streets so cyclists and joggers have more space.

“It just baffles me that a deep red, rich town can accomplish this,” Flannery said, “and NYC—where a majority of households don't own a car—can not.”

Joe Marvilli, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning, told Motherboard it is on pedestrians to maintain social distancing. “If a sidewalk is less than six feet wide, and is being used by someone else,” he advised, “wait at the corner for them to pass or use a crosswalk to safely get to the other side of the street."

Gordon didn’t think much of that advice. “What DCP is saying is that pedestrians have to go out of their way or inconvenience themselves all because the city won’t inconvenience drivers.” He also pointed out DCP’s advice might not be possible for everyone to abide by. “As for crossing the street, what if you’re in a wheelchair and there’s no curb ramp? What if you’re elderly and lugging groceries? What if you’re mid-block? This doesn’t seem to be a statement made by people who are actually walking anywhere right now.”

Want to help Motherboard's reporting on social distancing on American sidewalks? Measure your sidewalk and fill out this form.