How Has NYC Transportation Changed Post COVID?

April 29, 2021

By Tamanna Mohapatra

The Hudson River Park Trust will be getting $5 million in state funding to build a two-block bicycle and pedestrian path along the West Side Highway.” “The Empire State Trail; a 750-mile network of space for bicyclists, hikers, runners, and others is now complete.” These recent headlines are seemingly good news, but we wanted to take a deeper look at the state of sustainable transportation in our city and ask the question: how has transportation changed post COVID?

Amid the pandemic last summer, many New Yorkers were anxious to spend time outside, prompting the city to launch a series of programs: most notably, Open Streets and Open Restaurants. NYC’s Open Streets program prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists by transforming streets into public spaces, only allowing non-through car traffic limited at 5 mph. It can also concurrently work with the Open Restaurants program, allowing restaurants to utilize the street space for additional seating; but most participants of Open Restaurants have their outdoor seating placed on what was once street parking on an otherwise unchanged street. NYC had more Open Streets miles than anywhere else in the U.S., but not of the highest quality and still not the 100 miles that was originally planned. And those numbers dwindled as the cold weather settled in, and upkeep proved to be an issue due to a lack of volunteer manpower and equipment. While DOT has recently released the new 2021 application for the Open Streets program, it’s already been off to a rocky start. The Mayor has stated previously that Open Streets is here to stay and will become a permanent part of the city’s infrastructure. In order to make that happen, advocates say the city cannot rely on community volunteers to set up the street barriers and signs, and that the barriers should be upgraded to semi-permanent fixtures. It is within reach for Open Streets to be a truly transformational policy, but the bottom line is that it needs more funding and a holistic redesign that encompasses the entire city. 

By reclaiming what was once 4 lanes of traffic and parking, Vanderbilt avenue (on the weekends) becomes a bikeway, playground, and restaurant dining area all in one.

The pedestrianization of streets is not a totally new phenomenon in New York City. In 2013, Mayor Bloomberg signed off on arguably the most successful street transformation project, the pedestrianization of Broadway at Times Square. And there have been many other smaller scale projects, like Summer Streets, where almost seven miles of streets between Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park were closed off to cars for three consecutive August Saturdays, attracting nearly 300,000 people in 2019. Or the Seasonal Streets program, which saw multiple streets, mostly in Manhattan and only for a couple of blocks, become pedestrian- and cyclist-only zones. The success of the seasonal streets was high, with multiple seeing pedestrian and business traffic increase between 30% and 110%. Clearly, there has been demand for more car-free public areas, and since the pandemic, the conditions for an expansion of these programs and the creation of new ones has been prime. 

One of the beauties of living in NYC is that you don’t need to own a car to get to your destination. Yet, our streets are still geared towards the automobile. As the most congested city in America, it is rich in roadways for cars and poor in greenspace for people. Hence the need for redesigning the city streetscape. That is the idea behind Transportation Alternatives’ new campaign, NYC 25X25. 

In March 2021, a coalition of 80+ local organizations signed on to NYC 25×25, of which GreenHomeNYC is also a signatory. NYC 25×25 challenges city officials to transform 25 percent of NYC’s streetspace by 2025, creating a more equitable, safe, vibrant, and resilient city. Currently, space for parking and moving cars represents > 75% of all street space. The remaining is split amongst car-free bus lanes (0.02 percent), bike lanes (0.93 percent), and sidewalks (24 percent). Converting car space into expedited bus routes, protected bike routes, and expansive space for neighborhood life is highly popular with New York City voters. So far, 6 candidates support the NYC 25X25 idea. A few aspects that the 25X25 campaign will look into are areas of open space, air quality, proximity to public transit, and even the number of bike-share docks. Currently these are inversely correlated to income and percentages of people of color in New York City neighborhoods. A better plan for the city would be to look into the needs of all its city residents.

As options in micro mobility increase, bike lanes need to accommodate more than just bikers. The same space is shared by bikes, scooters, skateboards, and even cargo bikes. 2020 was a record year for the New York City Department of Transportation effort in creating more equitable streets. The agency constructed nearly 30 miles of new protected bike lanes as well as over 35 miles of conventional bike lanes, 83 miles of car-free Open Streets, more than 10,800 Open Restaurants on city streets and sidewalks, and 16.3 miles of new bus lanes. The city’s streetscape was transformed the most in 2020. New York is also home to the nation’s largest bike share program, which offers 6,000 accessible bikes for rent, at 300 different stations.

As per the latest report  from the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, the City is implementing Freight NYC to increase the share of lower-emission rail and maritime freight. Another goal is to reduce the environmental impact of trucks by expanding electric charging infrastructure for trucks and smaller vehicles. Currently, we are nowhere near that capacity. There are only 1,200 car charging ports in the five boroughs now. We need plenty more if we are to meet the city’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. Creating them will take time, money, and labor; these are not scarce resources but still necessary to gather.

On another measurable aspect, NYC continues to remain high on the number of fatalities (1000 pedestrian and cyclist deaths since 2013) despite having launched a “Vision Zero” traffic safety plan. ‘More bike lanes’ has been getting a lot of traction, with seven of the nine future mayoral candidates attending a virtual forum in March dedicated to the future of cycling.  In reality, the mayor of New York has limited control of transportation systems; the one aspect they can regulate is its streets. It turns out buses are the most efficient means of transportation, and therefore candidates are exploring where to install cost-effective routes. Congestion pricing is also on track for 2022.

Financing of new transportation projects may be worth pondering. Will there be budget cuts because of the immediate economic situation?  As different sources of transit revenue decrease, will city agencies receive enough federal aid to adequately resume operations and perhaps support green infrastructure and renewable energy projects that are essential for decarbonizing transport? 

It’s worth comparing NYC to Paris, France. Even before the pandemic, Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, recognized that the transportation system needed an overhaul. Hidalgo’s administration took the pandemic as an opportunity to further increase their commitment to making Paris one of the greenest cities in Europe. And it’s paid off quite well; the city is currently undergoing a bike boom. Paris’ response to the pandemic was everything New York did and more. The share of total trips made in Paris by bicycle is at 15 percent, thanks to the almost 70 percent increase in bike traffic since last spring. Hidalgo has also introduced legislation that would maintain the anti-pollution and anti-congestion measures implemented during the last year by drastically reducing car traffic and car parking. To that effect, there has been a major focus on remodeling the city to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists by converting major thoroughfares into bike highways and plazas, while also barring older, more polluting cars from entering the city. By 2030, all petrol cars will be prohibited in Paris.  Additionally, last year Paris started to adopt a 15-minute city concept that involves the redesign of neighborhoods to hubs with access to all basic services within a 15 minute walk. If successful, it will be a worthy model for other cities, including New York.

Currently, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 250 cities have globally introduced measures to give additional space to cyclists and pedestrians. Major cities like Paris and Rome are expanding their bike infrastructure permanently.  The European Green Deal can be considered the framework for the region’s COVID recovery plan. It seeks to reduce transport-related emissions by 90% by 2050, with carbon pricing mechanisms and stricter vehicle emissions standards as key drivers. The Paris Agreement encourages green transport programs, such as the expansion of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and increased bus and bike lanes as the norm.  

Since a growing share of the global population is urbanized, cities have to focus on providing transportation options, while ensuring environmental conditions are not deteriorating due to congestion and motorization. Ongoing technological improvement in engine technology is reducing vehicle emissions. This is key since vehicle emissions are responsible for 30% of greenhouse gases in the United States. As per a 2018 report released by Union of Concerned Scientists, the broad strategies to reduce GHGs from transportation are by (1) increased fuel efficiency of new conventional vehicles; (2) decarbonizing traditional liquid transportation fuels; and (3) high levels of transportation electrification combined with further efforts to decarbonize electricity production. Walking, cycling and public transport are also considered sustainable options. Integration of transport and urban planning will go a long way in promoting sustainable transportation.

The work in urban sustainable transportation is urgent as it plays a major role in mitigating climate change and increasing the quality of life of city dwellers. How can we all be a part of the solution? A quick search shows there are plenty of opportunities in the sustainable transportation sector. The UN has openings such as Research Analyst, Sustainable Cities Program, to  Partnership Coordinator. Cities are spending a lot of thought and money in re-looking at their infrastructure in order to make it more sustainable. They are always worth tapping for job and/or networking opportunities. Besides non-profits, and the UN, many large for-profit companies are also looking to make a dent in this area. Keep your interest and eyes open for future opportunities. Be sure to attend the GreenHomeNYC forum in May – The Future of NYC’s Streetscape – to hear the perspectives of experts in advocacy, economics, and business.