I was walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood in central Brooklyn when two older women turned the corner in front of me. They both wore masks and latex gloves. They were in conversation, but walked about six feet apart. They had been walking along an avenue with wide sidewalks, but turned onto the sidewalk I was walking along, which was just a few feet wide. As we walked towards each other, it became clear we could not all walk along the sidewalk while maintaining social distancing. I had two options: walk as equidistant between them as possible, perhaps two feet or so from each, or walk into the road.
I repeat this calculus every trip outside dozens of times. I want to be a good pandemic samaritan, but I also don’t want to get hit by a car. And every time this happens, I wonder to myself why roads haven’t been blocked off for pedestrian use.
In 2017, after Mayor Bill de Blasio was re-elected for his second and final term, he decided to make the theme of his lame duck term “the Tale of Two Cities.” It was fresh, original, and not at all a lame throwback cliché, just like de Blasio himself. He explained that there is the rich New York and the poor New York. Little did he expect that an entirely new and unprecedented type of Tale of Two Cities would take place during his term.
Thanks to coronavirus, there is now an empty New York City and a crowded one. The empty city consists of the office buildings, bars, restaurants, libraries, tourist attractions, and streets. It is an object of great fascination for those of us grappling with the blood draining from a metropolis that used to be debatably worth paying exorbitant rents to access. We hope the empty city is merely falling asleep like a limb awkwardly tucked under a torso and the blood will come rushing back to it once it shifts position. But with each passing day we become ever so slightly less sure of this, partly because of a lack of confidence in de Blasio himself to roll the city over.
That lack of confidence stems from what’s happening in the other New York City, the crowded one: grocery stores, hospitals, the living room in our cramped apartment shared with two roommates all of whom are now working from home until further notice or unemployed with nowhere to go, the park where everyone goes to get fresh air and exercise, the playground where kids expend a fraction of their pent-up energy, and the sidewalk which is less than six feet wide, making social distancing a physical impossibility.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, for which New York City has become the national epicenter, this tale of two cities is, to a large extent, inevitable and necessary. But there is one thing, one very obvious thing, the city could do to ease some of the crowding in parks, sidewalks, and playgrounds.
The city could close a portion of its more than 6,000 miles of streets to through traffic and open it to people.
The benefits of closing off many streets to traffic are obvious to anyone who visited the Prospect Park loop during the last week. It has been packed with joggers and families to such an extent that it’s not possible to maintain six feet of distance from anyone else. Many neighborhood playgrounds and parks around the city have a similar problem.
While parks are too crowded, streets are virtually empty. In the days immediately following a state executive order limiting business activity, traffic plummeted some 35 percent and it has further declined after the state issued a shelter-in-place order days later. According to urban mobility app Citymapper, only about five percent of trips normally taken in New York City are being made today.
Thanks to this lack of traffic, I now jaywalk across major thoroughfares like Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues without breaking stride—a death sentence during normal times—because there are so few cars. Residential streets are even more desolate. The one I live on would regularly experience traffic jams a block long during rush hour. This hasn’t happened in weeks. On Monday afternoon, a car passed my window every three to four minutes on average. Closing off some streets would have zero impact on traffic because there isn’t any.
Instead of taking this painfully common sense solution at face value—one public place is very crowded, another very empty; let us redirect some of the people from the crowded space to the empty one—and executing it, the city has spat in common sense’s face and shoved it to the ground for good measure. Here, I’m referencing de Blasio’s threat to close not the streets, but parks and playgrounds if they continue to be too crowded, which of course they will, because people have nowhere else to go for fresh air and exercise since the city won’t close off streets. (On Tuesday, the city announced the closure of 10 playgrounds "where we have consistently found a lack of regard for social distancing." Closing playgrounds may in fact be good policy because of all the shared surfaces; parks less so.) It’s a vicious cycle that feels aggressively hostile towards those of us cooped up in something smaller than a mansion on 88th Street.
But it’s not too late to do the right and obvious thing. The good news about closing off streets to most vehicle traffic is it takes little more than a few road cones.
The half-baked idea I thought of a week ago and haven’t immediately thought of a reason why it wouldn’t work—which I guess makes it pretty well-baked by now— is to close off every fifth residential block to traffic. This can be done by placing two orange traffic cones at each end of the block, far enough apart that emergency vehicles and local traffic can still get through but close enough together to force drivers to slow down and see that people may be using the street.
New York already does this, to varying degrees, with two different summer programs: Summer Streets and block parties. Summer Streets is a Department of Transportation program that closes off seven miles of main roads from the pitifully narrow window of 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on three Saturdays in August. Block parties, which are more in line with what I’m talking about here, merely require a permit in order to close off the street and are limited to one day. The day of the event, the police put a barricade at either end of the block or someone from the block association parks their car across the crosswalk. Fun ensues.
Safe streets advocates have been calling for expanded Summer Streets and block party programs for years, because, as DOT’s own website puts it, “Summer Streets is an annual celebration of New York City’s most valuable public space—our streets.” It seems that if it is truly our most valuable public space, we ought to enjoy it a bit more, especially now.
To be far fairer to de Blasio than he deserves, I will mention the city did recently close off a few blocks per borough—a grand total of 1.5 miles of road—for four days for precisely this reason. It is astounding, though, that the city thought this would aid in social distancing one iota. How did they figure closing off four blocks in Bushwick would make the slightest difference in a borough of 2.5 million people?
It’s not at all clear what the Mayor is afraid of, as there has never been a better time to do this, both practically and politically. During these “normal times” to which I keep referring but am increasingly unable to clearly recall, every effort to close streets to cars is typically opposed by a cadre of conservatives: local businesses who think it will hurt their bottom line, crotchety residents who are worried about their parking, and occasionally local politicians who are worried about getting the votes of the people who are worried about their parking.
But these are not normal times. Most of the crotchety people who are worried about their parking have long since gotten in their cars, left their parking spots, and driven far away. Or, they have realized there is nowhere worth driving to and, with alternate side parking suspended, don’t plan on moving the car any time soon. The business owners who normally worry about their bottom lines have much bigger worries about their bottom lines at the moment. All of the usual opposition is either nowhere to be found or no longer opposed.
When I asked the Department of Transportation about all this, it directed me to City Hall, which did not respond to a request for comment. It’s a shame, because closing off hundreds of streets could go a long way towards closing the gap between the new tale of two cities. You’d think de Blasio, of all people, could understand that.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated this is de Blasio's third term. It is his second. I have lost all sense of time and regret that tremendously.