It took a pandemic, but New York City is seeing more clearly than ever that its roadways can do more than move cars and trucks.
Restaurants transformed parking spaces into outdoor dining rooms festooned with lights and plants.
Children reclaimed the city’s side streets, playing catch on the asphalt.
Peaceful protesters flooded the streets with cries for justice in the police killings of Black Americans.
In a year with so little solace, New York’s streetscape has brought steady relief. It’s just one example of the many opportunities before the city in the months and years ahead to reimagine how its residents can live, work, play and get around town.
One solid step would be making expansive outdoor dining a permanent fixture of New York life. But there are more urgent tasks — such as protecting pedestrians and cyclists from vehicles. After years of progress, pedestrian and cyclist deaths rose to 126 in 2019, from 105 in 2018, and are on track this year to be only slightly lower. Overall traffic fatalities are up to 218 this year, from 191 in 2019, according to city data. City officials said vehicle registrations are up, and the city has seen more reckless driving during the pandemic.
Also vital is improving air quality in low-income communities that are plagued by high asthma rates, like the Bronx, where residents have died of Covid-19 at far higher rates than the city as a whole. “We have smog in peoples’ backyards,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes large swaths of the Bronx. “If you drive 40 minutes upstate, it’s almost shocking what fresh air feels like. In some communities you just think it’s normal that the air is just kind of heavier.”
Righting this injustice means having fewer and more efficient vehicles on the road. The city’s plan to transition to electric buses by 2040 can happen sooner, and should begin in these neighborhoods. New York can also look toward building an electric fleet of sanitation trucks as that technology improves. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said the next mayor — Bill de Blasio’s term is up next year — should reassess any tax cuts to companies and industries that bring heavy pollution with them. The city can improve the air quality in these communities even further by bringing back and significantly expanding a borough-based composting system to reduce waste that is inevitably diverted through transfer stations in the South Bronx, a shift that can also bring jobs to New Yorkers who need them.
New York’s mayor and congressional representatives need to fight hard in Washington for the infrastructure dollars the city needs. That’s the only way the city can reinvest in its aging subway system, harden critical regional infrastructure and expand its bus network to areas of the city that are less accessible, like eastern Queens. Coaxing people out of their cars demands that these efforts succeed.
Other changes need to be made to the roadways themselves. The city should move faster to build a thoroughly interconnected network of protected bike lanes. It also needs pedestrian and cyclist islands at dangerous intersections. More dedicated bus lanes and car-free avenues, like 14th Street in Manhattan, may help.
A few small ideas: How about making New York’s notorious trash problem part of the solution? Instead of letting those stinky piles of refuse pile up at the curb, why not put the city’s trash into critter-proof enclosures placed between cyclists and cars? They could even have flower beds on top.
The next mayor should feel free to get creative.
Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said the key is to invest in public space in general. The city has some 1,700 parks and playgrounds, upon which New Yorkers have relied heavily during the pandemic. “We have to use our assets,” Mr. Moss said. He added that the city would be smart to focus more resources in the outer-boroughs, which teemed with life even as large swaths of Manhattan emptied earlier this year. “The people who didn’t leave this city have found a way to make this city more livable,” he said.
With New York City facing a budget crisis, some changes will be difficult, or may take longer than they should. Change is generally difficult in New York, home to a political class that tends toward calcification.
But amid unthinkable loss and suffering this year, lessons have been learned. Embracing those lessons is in some ways the greatest challenge facing New York, an old, proud city ready to be born anew.