Paving the Way for a Pedestrian-Focused New York

As part of its NYC Streets Plan, the DOT launched an online survey to gauge the public’s preferences

| 01 Jul 2021 | 09:00

Unbuckle your seatbelts and refill your MetroCard, because NYC’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has just initiated its NYC Streets Plan, a five-year efforts to transform how New Yorkers commute and interact with the city’s transportation infrastructure. Issues such as accessibility, safety, cleanliness, and efficiency will be dealt with based on feedback gathered from an online survey, which has been up on the DOT’s website since the start of June 2021. The department promises to “respond equitably to the uniqueness of the City’s many neighborhoods and local needs,” hence the widespread effort to get the public involved in the project.

Much of the current public involvement comes in the form of the survey, which aims to understand why commuters prefer certain types of transportation, their issues when commuting, and what they’d like to see more of on NYC’s streets. For one question, a map of NYC asks responders to pinpoint specific areas where certain modes of transportation are very difficult. The specificity of this question is good for spot-reducing problems like traffic congestion or lack of public bikes, but may alienate those less familiar with the city.

The online survey isn’t the only way the DOT plans to connect with the public. Throughout July, September, and October, it will be hosting virtual public workshops where anyone can register to attend and “provide insights on the areas [they] know best.” However, while responses are trickling in, the DOT has begun to take action on improving city streets and revitalizing public spaces, especially as the pandemic wanes. For example, it is collaborating with the Green Wave Plan, the department’s agenda to increase biking and protect cyclists across the city. Additionally, new maps on bus stops promoting #WalkNYC aim to encourage pedestrians to walk more, adding details like nearby stores and walk times.

The message of the DOT seems to be that the city is moving past catering towards cars, instead focusing on making more space for pedestrians, bikers, and other forms of alternative transportation. None of its current programs embodies this more than its Open Streets program.

Streets for the People

The slim metal barricades blocking off Canal Street at its intersection with Essex aren’t strong enough to block an upcoming vehicle, but their message is clear enough that no car encroaches on this new Open Street. Canal St., closed to cars from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day, is just one of over 50 locations that are currently designated Open Streets – and the numbers are growing. Open Streets have been present in NYC for years, but it was only this April that the city council voted to make them a permanent fixture.

There are two types of Open Streets: those with temporary limited local access and those with temporary full closure. The former allows for parking and certain vehicles, such as city service vehicles or those making local deliveries, though there is a strict speed limit. The latter prohibits any vehicle from entering the closed-off zone.

Canal St. has full closure, allowing restaurants to set up outdoor dining, pedestrians to wander, and bikers to pass by without worrying about weaving through traffic. Its closure goes all the way from Essex St. to Orchard St., giving many businesses room to branch out on the sidewalk. One such business is seafood restaurant Cervo’s, which acts as the representative for the businesses that applied to make Canal St. part of the NYC DOT Open Streets program.

Having a local establishment manage the Open Street is integral to its function, as DOT emphasizes that “Open Streets partners must have strong ties to the community.” Information about the application process, as well as all current Open Streets in NYC can be found on the DOT website, which is a hub for information about public events and transportation changes, especially as pandemic restrictions ease.

In fact, the economic impact of the pandemic has been a big impetus to the rapid reopening of public spaces and the DOT Open Streets program. Certain Open Street managers, such as the LES Partnership, which was behind the opening of Broome St., cite “COVID-19 merchant relief” as one of their main priorities. Expanded seating allows restaurants to bring in more much-needed revenue as the city slowly regains normalcy.

In conjunction with its Open Streets program, NYC DOT is currently working on creating a permanent Open Restaurants program, planning to start legal action this fall. However, even now, any restaurant can apply to use the adjacent sidewalk or street next to its premises; many restaurants have been doing this as pandemic restrictions have led to increased outdoor dining. Business has improved with outdoor seating, increasing the number of establishments looking to apply to become Open Restaurants.

The Death of Cars?

With all this new pedestrian street space, it is getting increasingly difficult for cars to maneuver and drivers to find parking. The DOT offers traffic advisories, but mainly focuses on lowering the speed limit, reducing vehicle presence around public transportation entrances, and overall making the streets safer for pedestrians, which often means a reduction in cars. While they offer municipal parking facilities in all five boroughs, these are spread out and can be quite out of the way for most motorists, who are forced to use other commercial parking garages if they want to drive – commercial garages that are looking at increased revenue.

Overall, many pandemic changes will remain long after restrictions are a thing of the past. Even as the past year has been spent in isolation, the city is focusing on public spaces and transportation, which will help bring New Yorkers back together. No form of transportation seems to be phasing out entirely; instead, on busy streets, cafe tables are next to bus lanes filled with cyclists. It’s a messy scene, but part of what makes New York unique. The DOT’s challenge is to make the uniqueness safer for everyone.