Reclaiming the streets: New York’s green light to banish cars
By Oliver Milman OLIVER MILMAN IS AN ENVIRONMENT REPORTER FOR GUARDIAN US
As an emergency measure for the pandemic, New York City’s banishment of cars from certain streets saw unexpected space open up for pedestrians, restaurant tables and playing children. A campaign backed by the city’s new mayor aims to permanently wrest dominance away from vehicles and preserve these outdoor havens. The alternative vision for America’s largest city demands that 25% of its street space is converted from car use to walkable pedestrian plazas, green space, bus lanes and dedicated cycle paths by 2025. The campaign, called 25x25, has been adopted by activists in Los Angeles. Cities should consider a formula of “space minus cars equals quality of life”, according to Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. The group cites the climate crisis, air pollution, the death toll from car crashes and community cohesion as reasons to hand room from cars to people. “Using streets to simply move and store cars is not optimising that space. We just got blinded by the car industry and this belief that we should put an SUV in every garage,” he said. With its dense neighbourhoods, heavy use of public transport and a majority of households not owning a car, New York City would appear an obvious wellspring for car-free space. And yet three-quarters of street space is given over to cars, according to Transportation Alternatives, with New York’s roads lined with 3m free car-parking spaces, more than one space for every car in the city. Millions of pedestrians have to traverse narrow sidewalks that are often obstructed due to the city’s penchant for leaving out bags of rubbish for collection. “As New Yorkers, we think of ourselves as being tough. But that doesn’t mean we have to live in filth, or that we should fear death or injury every time we cross the street,” said Harris. The plan, which would create the equivalent space of 13 Central Parks to be used for 800km of dedicated bus lanes, 800km of protected bike lanes, new secure garbage containers and widespread community use of car-free roads, has been backed by Eric Adams, the New York City mayor who wobbled to work on a bicycle on his first day in office in January and has pledged to make the city greener. “These are our streets, and it’s about riding, skateboarding, walking,” Adams said last month as he unveiled a new $900m plan for the city’s 10,100km of road to improve intersections and upgrade bike paths and bus lane infrastructure. Temporary barriers were placed on a clutch of streets early in the pandemic to block off cars and ensure social distancing for people. The programme, called Open Streets, has since blossomed across 150 different locations in New York. Attitudes about transport among New Yorkers can often seem contradictory – the city has one of the largest subway systems in the world and its most walkable, cycle-friendly neighbourhoods are the most desirable, and yet car congestion is so bad that the average traffic speed in midtown Manhattan is under 8km/h. Congestion pricing has been bitterly fought, and vocal car advocates successfully stymied attempts to ban vehicles from the city’s two great parks, Central Park and Prospect Park, for decades. The Open Streets concept was initially opposed by some restaurants. Plans to make permanent the most celebrated of the Open Streets, a 1.5km stretch of avenue in Queens, has been attacked in Facebook posts and via a small protest march by residents. “My daughter sees people drinking and smoking weed,” Gloria Contreras, who co-founded the protest group Resisters United, said. “I moved to 34th Avenue because it was a beautiful, quiet residential neighbourhood. I never had the issues I have now.” The desire for untrammelled access for cars is common across the US. This year, in Texas, a plan by San Antonio to transfer some lane space from cars to bike paths was halted by the state government, while in Florida, Miami passed a law to demand developers build more parking. “This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city,” said Manolo Reyes, a Miami city commissioner. “We don’t have a mass transit system, period.” Parking takes up about a third of land area in US cities, with around eight spaces installed for each car across the country. Joe Biden’s administration has sought to encourage public transport, and even raised the idea of tearing down certain highways, but is still handing out $350bn to the states to upgrade and expand roads for car use. The president has also championed the adoption of electric vehicles in order to cut planet-heating emissions rather than phase down car use itself.