Less than two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would close a handful of streets to vehicular traffic to ease the pressure on crowded parks and give New Yorkers more room to safely spread out during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, the mayor killed the program, citing poor attendance and the amount of NYPD resources necessary to close the streets.
You would be forgiven if you hadn't heard that some streets in Midtown, Jackson Heights, Bushwick, and West Bronx, were open to pedestrians in the first place, given that the pilot program included just 0.06 percent of the city's 120,000 blocks. The Mayor's office framed the decision to end the pilot as one that would protect the NYPD.
“The brave men and women of the NYPD never back away from a challenge when the safety of New Yorkers is at stake," Jane Meyer, a de Blasio spokesperson, said in a statement. "We are suspending this pilot because we must protect them like they are protecting us, and not enough New Yorkers are utilizing this program to justify its continuation at this point in time.”
The mayor's decision comes as his administration has removed basketball rims and shut down playgrounds to enforce social distancing measures. On Monday the administration announced that the Parks Department would be closing dog runs. At a press conference on Sunday night, de Blasio blamed "bad weather" for why the streets weren't utilized, a strange justification given that the weather will only get warmer.
The mayor's decision also comes as drivers are reportedly speeding now more than they did before New Yorkers went on "PAUSE."
According to data compiled by traffic engineer San Schwartz, 66,907 speed camera violations were issued to drivers from March 16th through March 20th, an 18 percent increase from the previous week. Schwartz's firm says that because traffic volumes have decreased by 35 to 50 percent, this means that drivers are speeding at a rate of 81 percent to 136 percent more. The cameras are placed on residential streets.
The whole reason the closed streets pilot existed in the first place is because Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was appalled by the lack of social distancing in parks, and ordered the mayor to come up with a plan.
"There are many options. You have much less traffic in NYC [due to the COVID-19 response]. Get creative. Open streets to reduce the density," Cuomo said on March 22nd. "That's where people should be — in open space areas, not in dense locations."
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was asked about the streets pilot on NY1 Monday morning. "The council's going to keep pushing and it's going to be more important than ever as the weather gets nicer," Johnson said. "And it's nice out today, and I'm afraid we're going to see crowding in parks today."
"I think we can do something a lot bigger," Johnson added, pointing to the Department of Transportation's annual Summer Streets program, which last year closed seven miles of streets in Manhattan for several weekends. "We want to be strategic, we want to be smart, with a plan that opens up our streets to look at wide swaths and stretches."
It's not clear why so many NYPD officers were needed to patrol so few empty streets, or why the DOT wasn't more involved in choosing sites that didn't need an abundance of NYPD personnel.
Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander, who thought the mayor's plan wasn't ambitious enough, called de Blasio's decision "disappointingly shortsighted."
"The mayor's claim that each street needs four NYPD officers for the entirety of the closure is preposterous. There aren't officers watching the sidewalks, and there's nowhere near that much police presence in the parks. In 15 minutes, an officer can put barricades up at the start of the closure, and then take them down at the end," Lander said in a statement.
"As playgrounds close and parks become crowded, people seeking exercise and fresh air to get through this stressful time need more space to spread out, not less. People do need to observe physical distancing more diligently, but these 6 blocks were not nearly enough to meet the needs of many neighborhoods and now there is even less opportunity for people to be outside safely."
Temperatures this week are supposed to be in the high-50s to mid-60s.