How the coronavirus changed the fight for street space in New York

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Street space has become the new battleground as New York City looks to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outdoor dining, protests, dedicated bus and bicycle lanes, scooters and mopeds, app-based ride sharing, delivery trucks, homeless people and vendors are all at play as public officials manage with far less at their disposal.

The coronavirus has driven the push to make New York City streets more available to pedestrians, bicyclists and diners.

“Streets have become the most competitive space,” said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation and Management.

Dynamics often collide, sometimes literally. On Monday night, a car crashed into an outdoor dining area along the Upper East Side, injuring three persons.

Outdoor dining is especially a focal point with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hinting days ago that indoor dining may not return this year.

Municipal bond analyst Joseph Krist questioned whether outdoor dining will be viable as an economic model.

“Will it be enough to replace the 10,000 restaurants estimated to have closed in New York City since March?” he said. “What tradeoffs in terms of transit and traffic must be made as the level of economic activity is on a sustained path to recovery?”

Add to the mix that winter is coming. Outdoor dining won't be very appealing in a cold December wind.

Meanwhile, garbage uncollected and overflowing litter bins due to budget cuts prompted complaints from residents and business owners, and calls for improvements from U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Residents of New York’s Upper West Side and the Legal Aid Society are threatening lawsuits over the use of hotels as homeless shelters. And in Brooklyn, an ice-cream truck driver plowed through a New York Police Department barricade.

To all this, add an “outdoor learning” initiative that de Blasio announced with schools Chancellor Richard Carranza ahead of a planned school reopening.

The program will enable schools to hold classes outdoors in schoolyards, adjacent streets and nearby park space. It is open to all public, charter, and private schools, as well as Learning Bridges. Schools in 27 areas that the coronavirus has hit hardest, and with no outdoor space, will receive priority.

Streets nominated must be quiet and non-commercial; preferably one-way but if two-way, not more than one lane of traffic in each direction. They must not be bus or truck routes and not be used by a police or fire station, parking garage or hospital.

“When you think about what we're talking about, you got your school yard, your school courtyard, it’s the things the principal already controls,” de Blasio told reporters. “You've got the streets next to the school. If they will work, DOT has a long history of knowing how to shut those off if they need to. You got [the Department of Parks and Recreation], which again, often coordinates already with schools.”

The city’s Department of Transportation manages the city’s streets. Commissioner Polly Trottenberg works with an annual operating budget of roughly $1.1 billion, and a 12% cut for fiscal 2020 and 2021.

That cut could deepen if the city receives little or no further federal rescue aid or additional borrowing capacity from Albany to cover a projected $9 billion gap over this fiscal year and next.

“It’s no secret the city has taken a financial blow,” Trottenberg said on a webcast hosted by think tank Regional Plan Association and infrastructure firm HNTB.

“I think a lot of us who run big agencies know that a fair amount of our operating budgets tend to be fixed costs, rent and other things,” she said. “So that cut is not an easy one to swallow.

“On the capital side, we haven’t had big cuts yet but there’s certainly a slowing and a re-evaluation of all the projects and perhaps sequencing them differently.”

Trottenberg, at her job since January 2014 when de Blasio took office, is a former U.S. Department of Transportation undersecretary and a former New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member.

“Reconsider the curb” is among the recommendations in a report by NYU Rudin Center and Sam Schwartz Engineering about transportation during the pandemic.

“When curbside lanes consist of free or low-cost private vehicle parking, the city is providing prime real estate to private users,” the report said. “Street curbs should be positioned for dynamic purposes: financial gain, dynamic usage and reducing reliance on personal vehicles.”

The report called for pricing on-street parking at a higher rate while reducing free parking. “Pricing can be dynamic to incentivize the efficient movement and storage of vehicles, and at a rate that is more aligned with market rate costs of private garages.”

Other suggestions range from placard enforcement to new management of truck loading and unloading.

Citi Bike, the city’s bike-sharing program, is hitting new rider peaks, expanding in northern Manhattan and the South Bronx and adding infill stations in Manhattan. Citi Bike has also been offering perks such as free memberships for front-line workers.

Moped sharing service Revel returned to New York’s streets on Thursday with new safety measures. The company shut down last month after three fatal crashes in a 10-day span. One crash that killed passenger Nina Kapur, a WCBS television reporter, triggered extensive media coverage.

Trottenberg, whose department manages 800 bridges, 6,000 miles of roads and 12,000 miles of sidewalks, called the transformation of city streets “the most iconic and the most exciting” part of her job.

“Make them less auto-centric, make the streets more transit-friendly,” she said. “We do a lot of work with [MTA] New York City Transit on bus lanes and service.”

A DOT signature project that launched before the pandemic was the 14thStreet busway, which became permanent in June after a pilot program. The east-west route, which serves about 28,000 daily M14 riders, combines blocks of exclusive access and standard bus lanes to provide bus priority from 9th Avenue to 1st Avenue.

According to city DOT data, speeds and pre-pandemic ridership rose by as much as 24% and 30%, respectively. Nine similar projects are in the pipeline, Trottenberg said.

In addition, the city has added 75 miles of open streets and 20 miles of bus lanes, plus the open-restaurants outdoor dining program in conjunction with the city's phased reopening from the coronavirus lockdown.

“In some ways it’s exciting and rewarding and important, but again, a big challenge in a climate of budget cuts and particularly, headcount reduction,” Trottenberg added.

The specter of layoffs continues to hover. De Blasio has warned that the city could jettison up to 22,000 workers in October.

“That 22,000 number is painfully real,” de Blasio told reporters.

"There’s certainly a slowing and a re-evaluation of all the [capital] projects and perhaps sequencing them differently," said city transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

Janette Sadik-Khan, Trottenberg’s predecessor at city DOT, spoke of beginning with small, incremental changes.

She referenced the advocacy of the late urban planner and author Hank Dittmar. In his last book, “DIY City,” Dittmar explains why individual initiative, small-scale business and small development matter.

“We went from small plazas in DUMBO and Chelsea to the pedestrianization of Times Square in under two years,” said Sadik-Khan, now a principal at Bloomberg Associates who also chairs the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “If we had started with the big project first, we would never have succeeded.”

DUMBO is an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, a Brooklyn hipster neighborhood.

“Now, mayoral candidates are trying to outdo one another with who can call for the most greener, safer, more active streets and it all started with something small,” Sadik-Khan added.

Reclaiming street space, she said, has been one of cities’ first responses to the pandemic. “You see that in London and Paris in Chicago and Oakland and San Francisco. These small actions were radical a decade ago and today, they are proven best practices.”

Speaking on an RPA webcast, Sadik-Khan also cited New York’s conversion of underused land in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood to the 1.5-mile High Line walking and bicycle path, and the emergence of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, used to manufacture ships during World War II, to a tech hub.

“I think you need to create a new kind of bureaucracy of change, giving cities a permission slip to say yes instead of no,” she said. “By starting small, you can over time … otherwise, you’re just building on the same infrastructure you did 50 years ago. You’re then running new software on old hardware."

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