Will Cars Rule the Roads in Post-Pandemic New York?

When New York went into lockdown five months ago to contain the virus, traffic virtually disappeared, and the mostly deserted streets suddenly became a vast trove of open space in one of the world’s most crowded cities.

But now as New York slowly recovers and cars have started to return, a battle for the 6,000 miles of city streets is just beginning.

Desperate restaurant owners have put out tables and chairs and want to keep them there. Anxious parents see the streets as a solution to crowded indoor classrooms. Cyclists and pedestrians are demanding more safe corridors as their numbers soar. And some virus-wary commuters are avoiding public transit and climbing into cars to protect their health.

Competition for New York’s streets is nothing new — there have been growing calls in recent years to push cars aside — but the pandemic has emboldened more people than ever to stake their claim to a piece of asphalt and force a sweeping reimagining of the urban grid.

Under pressure from advocates for open spaces and the restaurant industry, the city has temporarily excluded cars from more than 70 miles of open streets for social distancing, biking and outdoor dining.

Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“The longstanding tension between those who see cars as evil and those who see cars as essential has been heightened by the pandemic because usable outdoor space is more crucial than ever,” said Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and design.

City officials have not presented any overall vision or comprehensive plan for redesigning the streets to accommodate more uses and have said they are waiting to see emerging traffic patterns as more people return to work and schools open for some in-person learning.

For now, they have taken a more piecemeal approach, including adding batches of open streets every few weeks and announcing five new busways to speed up service by taking cars off busy arteries. They have also expanded temporary outdoor dining to help restaurants, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said the dining setups would return after the winter.

“I think the fact is we want to keep expanding every conceivable option and alternative, and we’ve seen how effective things like open streets have been,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters recently. “We keep expanding that, we keep expanding bike lanes. We want to see how far we can take both of them.”

Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But critics — many of whom have viewed Mr. de Blasio as a pro-driver mayor — have faulted what some describe as the city’s reactionary approach and contend that the moment is ripe for an ambitious blueprint, much like other cities are adopting to permanently redraw the streetscape.

“I think we’re missing a huge opportunity,” said Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former city transportation official. “This is the time to reconfigure the streets. Traffic will fill however much — or however little — street space it’s allotted. Now is the time to literally redraw the lines.”

Other cities have taken bolder steps. London has embarked on a plan to accommodate a surge in pedestrians and cyclists by creating new walking and biking routes, widening sidewalks and limiting traffic on residential streets — some of which could become permanent. And in Paris, officials are moving to add more than 400 miles of new bike lanes across the metro region.

In New York, the growing conflict over the use of the streets will not simply end with the pandemic, Mr. Kayden said, since elected leaders, community activists, transportation experts and others who have long sought to repurpose roads for uses other than cars “will not want to give up their newly captured territory.”

Roberto Perez Rosado, 72, and his neighbors in park-starved Jackson Heights, Queens, are vowing to fight to keep a promenade that was opened on 34th Avenue during the pandemic. “If they take it away we will be petitioning, we will be going to meetings, we will be active on the streets,” he said.

Drivers are pushing back, too. Kenny Otano, an ironworker, said that dividing up the streets has made traffic worse. “One lane is thrown out for buses, half a lane is thrown out for bikes, and the worst thing is the restaurants,” said Mr. Otano, 50. “It creates more traffic. Five lanes becomes three.”

Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Leslie Andre Howard, 35, a contractor from Queens, has a kidney condition and has been driving to work because he does not want to take the subway during the outbreak. His blue minivan, he said, “feels safer and you’re more in control.”

Some cyclists and transportation advocates have criticized the city for creating a series of disconnected open streets instead of building a comprehensive network of continuous routes and public spaces. The result has been confusion and conflict at times among groups trying to use the same space, including bike lanes blocked by outdoor restaurant seating.

William Cazorla, 38, a cyclist, described crashing to avoid running into people gathered around an outdoor dining spot in Brooklyn. “I took the dive, self-sacrifice you maybe would say,” he said.

Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, said, “If we all have to fight for table scraps, the city is pitting us against each other rather than leaning on us as partners.”

City officials said they have moved more quickly than they have been given credit for to make significant changes, including expanding outdoor dining to every corner of the city.

Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“We’ve used this crisis to make sweeping and popular changes to the urban landscape,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio. “There’s always more to do. But we’ve responded to New Yorkers’ calls for more public space, and we’re excited to keep going.”

City officials said they were also monitoring traffic and were prepared to take strict measures if the gridlock becomes acute, including restricting vehicles entering the city by their license plate numbers or requiring cars to have at least two occupants. Vehicle occupancy restrictions were imposed after the September 11, 2001, terror attack in Lower Manhattan.

Even though many offices and businesses are still closed and people are working from home, New York’s streets, which had been quiet for weeks, are refilling again with cars and trucks. Traffic volumes have more than doubled at some of the busiest bridge and tunnel crossings from New Jersey to just below pre-pandemic levels.

Demand for monthly parking spots in the city is also soaring, suggesting that some workers are choosing cars over the subway, buses or trains. SpotHero, a digital parking marketplace, has seen monthly bookings in lots and garages increase 123 percent in early July from the same period a year ago. The average monthly parking price has also risen to $351 from $288.

The traffic is also encroaching on public transit, with average speeds declining on public buses, which carry many essential and low-income workers to Manhattan from so-called subway deserts.

“It’s really a bad sign,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “It means the bus is a less useful way of getting around.’’

Even before the pandemic, congestion already exacted a huge financial toll, costing the New York region an estimated $20 billion a year in lost worker productivity and higher fuel and operating expenses, according to the Partnership for New York City, a leading business group.

If transit riders stay away in significant numbers, that would also erode fare revenue from a public transit system facing its worst financial crisis in decades.

At the same time, New York’s ambitious plan to cut down on traffic by imposing a fee on cars and trucks entering the busiest parts of Manhattan has stalled. That congestion pricing plan, which was expected to start early next year and raise money for public transit, has been delayed for at least a year by a federal review.

“We’ve been talking about traffic and congestion for years and we haven’t done enough about it,” said Carlo A. Scissura, the president and chief executive of the New York Building Congress, a trade association for the building industry. “Now, we’re at a moment of reckoning. We need to come together and have a plan for moving forward.”

Brad Lander, a councilman from Brooklyn, is supporting parents who want to use streets around schools for classes and activities. “You’re reimagining your city’s open spaces in a way that it feels like it belongs to people on foot and on bikes,” he said. “It feels, in my opinion, like a crusade for a more sustainable city.”

In northern Manhattan, dozens of restaurant owners are fighting to keep a temporary outdoor dining plaza on Dyckman Street. “We need it to survive,” said Susana Osorio, who pays $63,000 a month in rent for her two restaurants.

At Roof Top Republica, there is outdoor seating for 100 customers under twinkling lights, three times more than inside the small Dominican restaurant. The owner, Victor Sanchez, 52, said he is selling more meals than before the pandemic.

“I think it should be a permanent thing,” he said. “There’s going be a fight for the streets, definitely.”

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