There are a lot of words that can be used to describe New York City. Towards the top of the list are words like crowded and busy. The iconic image of grid-locked traffic dotted with the even more iconic checker cabs and bustling sidewalks is part of the city’s identity.
Today, however, the city is far from bustling. With the COVID-19 quarantine keeping the population sheltered, a “busy” street means just a handful of people walking, jogging, or cycling.
Yet, despite the ghostly vacant appearance of our otherwise busy streets, keeping the appropriate social distancing length from one another is still a challenge. Narrow sidewalks and traffic from cars can make it impossible to maintain that crucial distance on some stretches.
In response to this challenge, de Blasio has backtracked his previous thoughts on an open street plan for NYC. This plan is designed to turn asphalt streets into walking spaces, thereby giving New Yorkers more room to distance themselves as they move about the city.
It will be part of an ongoing plan to shift the city from its car-dependency, which could provide extreme value to NYC retailers.
The open street plan arguably started in March with a minimal test of 1.5 miles of street. According to the de Blasio administration, the test was cut short because it put too much pressure on NYPD staff.
Throughout March and April, de Blasio faced increasing pressure to reverse this decision. Eventually, the mayor reintroduced an open street plan. He said that his travels across the city and around parks made him realize the difficulties of social distancing on the city’s tight sidewalks — a problem he feared would become even more challenging in warmer months.
“The question has been coming up more and more, ”When it gets warmer, what is it going to look like?” Everything I saw in parks made me feel we had to help people continue to be able to social distance and that a lot of the nexus would be around the parks as it got warmer.”
De Blasio was also under pressure from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Johnson was the one who initially introduced the bill and planned to bypass the mayor and work with Gov. Cuomo directly if the issue wasn’t handled.
The plan itself will open close to 100 miles of streets for pedestrians in the coming months, with as much as 40 miles of road converting to pedestrian pathways in May alone. This includes some existing sidewalks and bike lanes that will be widened to make travel and social distancing easier.
The most exciting aspect of the open streets initiative is still to come (hopefully). It will come through the mayor’s newly-introduced Surface Transportation Panel. This panel is not focused on the immediate decisions of shutting streets for pedestrians.
Instead, it is looking to solve the future of New York City’s transportation issues. It is looking for answers as to what will happen in the months and years following the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the big challenges is the expected increase in car dependency after the shutdown order is lifted. New Yorkers may return to everyday life with a feeling of malcontent towards public transportation. There is likely going to be more people choosing private vehicles over subways and buses, which will burden the already traffic-intensive city.
Mayor de Blasio stated that moving away from a car-dependent city is at the top of the panel’s priority list. “Is this a moment to rethink how we get away from too much dependence on cars? And the answer is yes. We need to see this as a transformational moment, even with all the pain, even with all of the challenges. We are not going to bring New York City back the way it was.”
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about this panel. Mainly, a long history of talking without taking action. Some sources have also noted that there are several car advocates on the panel, which suggests that the committee’s interests are not aligned with the proposed objective.
We may still be weeks away from many retailers or restaurants being able to open their doors once more. Still, the open streets initiative is a positive light for these businesses. It’s simple math: more sidewalk space means more walking traffic on the streets.
For retailers and eateries, this means more opportunities to increase business foot traffic. More foot traffic means more sales.
As the city returns to “normal,” whatever that may look like, a decreased dependency on cars will continue to stimulate this increase in foot traffic. This will improve retail business and make NYC commercial real estate properties at street-level more valuable, which will be a much-needed relief to commercial landlords and property owners.
Many of these businesses are the most affected by the coronavirus lockdown. While the CARES act has relieved some of that pressure, many of these stores and restaurants are still struggling to meet rent demands for their business and home.
For restaurants, the increased foot traffic is a much larger positive because of the current outdoor dining plan that could be set to kick off the summer. While in-restaurant dining is still banned, outdoor dining (with some restrictions, of course) could return in time for warmer weather.
Another shift towards less car dependence and more foot and bicycle traffic, which may be the result of de Blasio’s panel, is tolls around city centers, like Manhattan. Other cities have already implemented this strategy to encourage fewer private vehicles in the city center and I predict New York City will be one of the next to adopt this plan.
This will increase pressure on car owners to choose Citi Bikes, scooters and walking over driving their vehicle. Coupled with the open streets initiative, the increased foot traffic could provide the big boom in business that these establishments desperately need.
The ultimate goal of the open street initiative is to turn city streets into safe havens and passageways for pedestrians and cyclists. As more New Yorkers leave their homes in search of fresh air and summer sun, this plan could also be the haven for retailers and restaurants to keep themselves afloat.
As these businesses start recovering, we can also expect rents and property costs to begin to normalize. The future of New York is looking a little brighter.