City Council Passes Bill Requiring More Open Streets In Underserved Neighborhoods

Just days after Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to allocate more than $12 million to fund the popular Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, the City Council has passed legislation aimed at creating more Open Streets in the underserved neighborhoods that need them most.

The bill will ensure that the Open Streets program will remain a fixture in the city after the pandemic is over.

Introduced at the height of the pandemic to give New Yorkers more physical space to roam, the Open Streets program is popular, but many of them rely on volunteer organizations to do all of the work keeping the streets closed to traffic. The result is that community organizations and restaurants in wealthier neighborhoods can afford to have Open Streets, while poorer neighborhoods are left out.

The City Council legislation passed on Thursday requires the Department of Transportation to create and operate at least 20 Open Streets “in areas underserved by Open Streets.” At least five of those locations must be at least five blocks long.

The legislation also gives existing Open Streets the ability to use parking spaces for programming, create their own traffic barriers and signage, and keep a street closed to vehicular traffic for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if they submit the proper planning.

Before today’s legislation was passed, the volunteer groups running the Open Streets programs were legally liable for setting up, adjusting, and breaking down the traffic barriers, a significant amount of responsibility given that their task often involves interacting with angry drivers and opponents of the initiative.

The first version of the law was initially proposed by East Village Council Member Carlina Rivera last April, but was set aside after de Blasio agreed to create 100 miles of Open Streets later that month.

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio said he supports the bill and will sign it.

Currently, there are around 235 Open Streets locations comprising around 70 miles (there are roughly 6,000 miles of roadway in New York City). Only about 50 of those locations are managed by a local partner, like a community nonprofit or a restaurant; the rest are technically managed by the NYPD and the DOT, and are essentially neglected.

“We know that Open Streets have not been expanded to the neighborhoods that really need them,” said Cory Epstein, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a partner of the Open Streets Coalition. “This really provides a lifeline to those communities.”

While de Blasio has said that he would like to see the program become permanent, Epstein said that “the success of the program will be cemented, literally, when streets get permanent infrastructure.”

To that end, the Council’s legislation requires the DOT to issue an annual report “to determine whether any such Open Streets could benefit from additional traffic calming measures and streetscape elements.”

However, the mayor’s upcoming budget only allocates money for materials and logistics to improve the permitting process and administration—$4 million for the Open Streets program, and $8.5 million for Open Restaurants—not capital improvements.

In 2019, the Council passed a five-year Streets Master Plan law that requires New York City to build 250 miles of protected bike lanes, 150 miles of dedicated bus lanes, and one million square feet of pedestrian space. According to the legislation passed on Thursday, any Open Streets that are made permanent will apply to that goal. The first part of that master plan is due in December of this year.

Every major Democratic candidate for mayor has pledged to keep the Open Streets program going or expand it.