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An Imbalance In Public Space

Two news items published this Tuesday, on the same website and with the same author, need to be read together. “Report: Less Than Half Of NYC’s Open Streets Are Operational” and “A Radical Plan to Revive Pandemic-Stricken SoHo: Remove Cars,” both on Gothamist and both written by Ben Yakas, both discuss the relationship of cars, space, and people on New York’s streets. New York, with its dense core, dense residential neighborhoods outside the core, and extensive mass transit system, is an outlier in the US. As of 2018, around half of the households in the city own cars, but only about a quarter (27%) of people in the city commute to work by car and only about 12 percent of commuting trips into the central business district in Manhattan are by car. But cars are given the majority of space on the public streets, while pedestrians are squeezed and cyclists have relatively few protected lanes.

The Open Streets initiative was a response to Covid: since traffic was drastically reduced in mid-2020, and outdoor activity was less likely to spread the virus than having people indoors, why not block off some streets for part of the day? The problem with the program, in the end, was that it was too limited. It depended on people’s good behavior to not simply move the wood sawhorses used to block the streets (and a lot of drivers failed that test) and it covered too few streets in too few areas. The failure was not pre-ordained: the Open Restaurants program, also enacted as a response to Covid, allowed restaurants to build open-air seating in the parking lanes adjacent to their retail space and was a success and will apparently become permanent in some form.

The problem in SoHo is quite a bit different. Most of the streets there are narrow and have relatively little through traffic. On the other hand, over the last fifty years the neighborhood has evolved from industrial, to industrial with a large artists’ colony, to gentrifying residential with high-end retail at the ground floor. The retail has relied heavily on tourists and people who live outside the neighborhood, so it has been badly damaged by Covid restrictions on travel. Given the slight importance of cars in SoHo’s economy, why do they occupy so much of the public space there? And could there be a better use for the streets?

The picture above shows Park Avenue and 36th Street, looking south around 1914 or 15. The high-rise on the right is Four Park Ave, which was completed in 1913; the tower on the left was part of the (sadly demolished) 71st Regiment Armory. The notable thing about this picture that makes it look old is the street. Only two cars are visible, a potentially-useable portion of the street is “wasted” on planted medians, and there are no parked cars. Putting aside modern concerns about pollution and carbon released by burning gasoline, doesn’t it make sense to look to our own past for clues about evening out how much space people get versus cars?