When the city’s government announced the closing of a few high-trafficked streets, we weren’t expecting anything less than true New York City fashion.
This August, nearly seven miles extending from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street will be closed to vehicles on three Saturdays, announced New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg and Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan on Monday. Automobiles will be banned from 7a.m. to 1p.m. on August 9, 16, and 23, on streets running north/southbound along Centre Street, Lafayette Street, Fourth Avenue and Park Avenue to 72nd Street. For 18 hours, the usual cab-infested, stop/go, horn-honking streets will be transformed into a safe haven for pedestrians and bicyclers.
The car-free route will be appropriately called Summer Streets, bringing back memories of chalk-covered sidewalks, hopscotch, and Mr. Softie. Of course, with any new initiative, there will be complainers.
Wednesday’s New York Times article featured one upset local business owner:
“It’s a big problem because my merchandise doesn’t fall from the sky,” says Tran Harper, Canal Lafayette Store manager. “How do I get it here? Saturday is the busiest day. We have a lot of deliveries on Saturday. Also a lot of customers park their cars in front and come in to buy.”
Forget the community involvement, the environment-friendly activities, the exercise, the bringing residents together, and the free programs because the Canal Lafayette Store is expecting a big run on herbal tea in the heat of August.
“It’s New York, people are going to complain no matter what,” says Wiley Norvell, Communications Director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization devoted to supporting walking, bicycling, and public transit in the city. “It’s not about retail and commerce as much as it is about recreation and exploration. Only six percent of shopping trips involve a car.”
He adds, “If you drive up pedestrian traffic, you drive up business. Period.”
But for those New Yorkers who can’t survive without picking up their Saturday supply of tea, side streets and major cross-town streets will remain open to vehicles and deliveries, reports the mayor’s office website.
“The cross streets will still be accessible,” says Norvell, “and it’s not like when you go to the grocery store you drive your car down the meat aisle. People are used to walking.”
And walking is in fact one of the main points. With obesity being more prevalent that Starbuck’s in the city, Summer Streets will prove to churn out more positives than just community involvement.
The 6.9-mile route will be more than just car-free for a few hours. It will offer dance, yoga, and other fitness classes along the route. There will also be bike rentals and repairs, water stations, and organized events, making Summer Streets one of the only free activities to grace the streets of New York City.
“It’s about encouraging New Yorkers to re-think their own streets,” Norvell says. “It’s about re-thinking their public space for things other than cars.”
Creating pedestrian-friendly walkways from highly vehicle-populated streets is nothing new. The idea has already been successful in Paris, Tokyo, and London. In Bogota, Colombia, 70, not seven, miles are closed to cars every Sunday. If it can work in other major countries around the world, why not the United States? Then again, we all know how that argument works with universal healthcare.
Norvell is hoping Summer Streets will be successful and the city will rub a little green thumb off on others across the United States.
“If something works in New York it spreads like wildfire across the country,” he says. “Unfortunately it’s been a long time since we’ve started something. This is a great chance for New York City to innovate.”
We couldn’t agree more.
By Kathryn Kondracki for Next American City.