In the year since the pandemic shut down New York City, momentum has been building around the idea that the city ought to take back more space from cars. Especially while it’s still in partial hibernation.
This idea germinated in birdsong and clear skies in the early days of the lockdown, two small silver linings of a tragedy. It bloomed with city-sanctioned open streets, which gave families much-needed space to walk and play. It went on through a bicycle boom, in which New Yorkers wary of buses and subways bought and rode bikes in huge numbers, and in racial justice protests that threaded the city’s avenues for weeks on end. Amid the snowdrifts, the enduring appeal of New York streets has been personified by bundled bodies and animated faces warmed by the orange light of heat lamps as New Yorkers gather through the winter at some of the 11,000 bars and restaurants that set up tables outside, more than 6,500 of them in space that was previously used for parking. We no longer had to imagine a city that gave less of itself to automobiles; we were suddenly, sort of accidentally, living in it.
New York City is not the only American city to undergo a version of this reckoning, but it is the metropolis with the lowest rate of car ownership and the highest population density. That makes it particularly fertile ground for a dramatically different approach to cars.
Along the way, various civic players have pushed for more. The architect Vishaan Chakrabarti proposed a radically redesigned Manhattan. City Comptroller Scott Stringer is running for mayor on permanent open streets, doubling bicycle ridership in four years, and promising to be the “Bus Mayor.” And U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who is riding his bicycle home from work and promising to redress the wrongs of urban highways, has given the go-ahead for the city to toll drivers entering its central business district—a first for a U.S. city.
But the most radical, comprehensive, and enticing proposal by far comes in a new campaign, NYC 25x25, from the safe streets group Transportation Alternatives. TA’s report imagines what it might look like to take one-quarter of the city’s automobile space and turn it over for people by 2025 (and explains the many, many reasons why that’s a good idea). This may seem utopian—but it’s not far from what is actually happening right now in European cities like Oslo and Paris.
By taking 1 in every 4 of the city’s 19,000 miles of driving lanes and 3 million free on-street parking spaces, New York could:
• open 1,000 miles of pedestrian streets.
• open one car-free block for play, outdoor learning, and pickup and drop-off outside each of the city’s 1,700 public schools.
• put every resident within a five-minute walk of 500 miles of bus lanes and 40 miles of busways, and within a quarter-mile of 500 miles of (real, car-protected) bike lanes.
• expand the popular bike-share program citywide.
• lease 5.4 million square feet of street space to businesses and nonprofit institutions, such as restaurants and arts organizations.
• add 2.9 million square feet in wider sidewalks to aid New Yorkers with wheelchairs and strollers.
• put public bike parking on every block.
• reserve 80 feet of curb on every block for package deliveries, pickup and drop-off, and trash storage and collection (sorry, rats).
• plant 15,000 new trees, the equivalent of adding almost an entire Central Park to the city’s canopy.
• create 38 million square feet for neighborhoods to allocate as they see fit—for example, basketball courts.
• establish hubs for street vendors, benches, trees, public bathrooms, bike charging, and bike parking outside every one of the city’s 472 subway stations.
• ”daylight” every intersection for pedestrian safety by removing adjacent parked cars that block drivers’ sight lines.
• meter hundreds of thousands of public parking spaces, raising billions for mass transit.
The report also goes over the many benefits associated with fewer cars, which you can review for yourself, but its real value is in expanding the window of what might be possible. This is the most expensive land in the world. We can do something besides storing automobiles on it.