Closed Streets, Open City

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Cover Image
By Ivy Jiang

I vacationed in Lisbon, Portugal late last July; this trip was likely the last time in the foreseeable future that I would board an airplane to another country without a medical mask fastened around my chin. At the time, vacationing in Lisbon and Porto was a global fad; neighbors and relatives had similar trips planned to the picturesque Iberian coastal-nation and made their travel plans known on social media under hashtags like Iberiansummer and Lisboalove. Unlike the model for cities in the United States, which is most often characterized by uniform roadways and shabby train lines, Lisbon was completely navigable—even ideal—on foot. Its urban development plan was tailored to the average pedestrian and acted in the interest of preserving its historic walking culture. Grand plazas were shut off to cars, and passageways were pedestrian-only. You could sense the lack of urgency in commuters, compared to the belligerent taxi drivers of our own city. Perhaps the city’s walkability and relaxed street dynamic account for Portugal’s top quality of life rating, which far surpasses many of Europe’s other plentiful destinations.

Initiatives in New York City have long tried to replicate this effect. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a reform in 2009 to close Broadway to car and truck traffic in Times Square—an attempt to “ease congestion throughout Midtown.” Then in 2019, mayor Bill de Blasio introduced plans to expand pedestrian space around the city in areas like Rockefeller center, where he dubbed pedestrian traffic more pressing than automobile traffic. Needless to say, there is a universal appeal to having a walkable city—it reduces emissions from automobiles, promotes the local economy, and nurtures the community.

Besides societal benefits, open streets are vital to pedestrian satisfaction; in an NPR interview with city planner Jeff Speck, he noted that for a street to appeal to pedestrians, the “walkways need to be useful, safe, and comfortable…essentially having a proper balance.” Striking this balance in a city fixed on car culture is hard to plan for, which is why the approach has been incremental reform first—observe the impact on traffic second.

Similar freedoms of closed streets and pedestrian walkability were recently granted to my neighborhood, as two of Williamsburg’s busiest streets were closed off as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The intention was to provide more space for city dwellers to go outside and walk their pets, especially as the weather in NYC is improving, without having to share the narrow sidewalks or crowded greenspaces. On 80 degree days, residents have flocked to public parks, abandoning their quarantine mentalities. The general logic is even if public gatherings are unavoidable, closed streets will at least help make social distancing more practical. Without the burden of aggressive drivers, the streets have the same serenity as Lisbon, and I was able to bike across all of Williamsburg without fear of an accident. Locals are satisfied with the solution too; the streets serve as a perfect outdoor patio for restaurants, which are still barred from allowing any in-store service.

Though this shutdown is temporary, it suggests that a more permanent closed-street system could realistically be implemented, especially as we navigate the post-pandemic realities and remain unsure about when a vaccine will arrive. Increased traffic has been the most widely-touted concern against moving to a permanent solution, and while this argument has merit—considering our city’s 1.9 million cars—there are a variety of historic examples to refute the contention that increased traffic is a reasonable worry. On Earth Day of 1990, the transportation commissioner closed 42nd Street in Manhattan to cars, predicting that a historic traffic jam would ensue in the surrounding areas. But in practice, traffic flow was inadvertently improved.

Mathematicians suggest that this was a real-life example of Braess’s paradox, a theorem that implies that for a crowded network of streets, adding another street can actually have adverse effects on traffic flow. More is not always preferred. Thus, if we better organize and direct our existing streets, we will be able to introduce walking reforms without introducing new traffic problems. In fact, in my own neighborhood, traffic has not seen a notable increase in any of the adjacent areas after the two streets were closed-off. When we return to normalcy, parks will continue to amass their normal crowds, and even though public health will no longer be the rationale for keeping the streets closed, foot traffic, community bonding, and more places for leisure should be enough of a reason for the local government to understand that it is worth a try. It is time to commit to more and not settle for less. Close the streets and open the city.