New York’s ‘Streetfighter’ calls for more car-free streets as response to pandemic

A car-free street in Brooklyn in August 2020. Photo courtesy Janette Sadik-Khan.

A car-free street in Brooklyn in August 2020. Photo courtesy Janette Sadik-Khan.

Cleveland will squander a perfect crisis, as the saying goes, if it puts all the pieces back in the same pre-pandemic order, former New York City Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn told a Zoom audience estimated at 1,200 people attending the University Circle, Inc. Annual Meeting in November.

Sadik-Kahn knows a thing or two about taking on entrenched interests. During her tenure as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s top transportation official, New York City transformed Times Square from a traffic-snarled block into a world-class plaza. What started out as a pop up project, with movable lawn chairs and lightweight cafe tables, became the poster child for challenging the orthodoxy of city planning. Times Square invited whimsy, and lots of people, back in without bulldozing a thing or costing the city more than a typical trip to Home Depot.

“Streets used to be shared spaces,” Sadik-Kahn said. “We saw them as places for people.”

This radical approach quickly spread to the traffic-clogged avenues of the city, where Sadik-Kahn introduced barrier-separated bike lanes and a bike share system. The moves were taken as an affront by motorists and traffic engineers who are trained to think that streets should be swept of obstacles, she adds, and that includes people.

“There are 1.35 million traffic fatalities in the U.S. per year. Instead of fixing the street, we’re teaching our kids to fear the street. Restoring the system that has that many traffic deaths would be a collosal failure.”

When the coronavirus struck, and car traffic suddenly plunged by 60 to 70 percent in some cities, it was an opportunity to rethink the status quo, she said. Cities, like San Francisco, have responded by adding 50 miles of car-free streets.

Tactical Urbanism author, Mike Lydon, is tracking car-free street additions per city since the pandemic, and periodically reports the numbers on his Twitter account. Cleveland, early in the pandemic, added six miles of car-free streets, in the Metroparks, but those efforts were seen as temporary. The city has also extended the permits for outdoor dining spaces, some of which have taken over parking spaces for park-lets, and is offering gwinter outdoor restaurant operations support grants.

“[Car-free streets] are a playbook many cities are looking toward,” Sadik-Kahn said, adding that a place to start is in painting bike lanes. “Cities can respond to the pandemic by rethinking streets. Streets are critical assets to [safely] bring people together.”

When Sadik-Kahn wrote her book, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, she hadn’t yet realized how critical having year-round amenities, like outdoor gyms and dining in temporary ‘dome’ shelters, like those popping up in Chicago, would be to cities.

“Cleveland has examples in Public Square and [Perk Park] on East 12th Street,” she said, adding, “we can reclaim parking lots for four-season cities to have safe dining options. Retailers can bring services outside.  They form the basis for an entirely different city. They can outlive the pandemic and redefine how cities function in the long term.”

Interested in learning more or getting involved? Check out Bike Cleveland’s Vision Zero webpage.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with over 15 years of experience as a researcher, project manager, and thought leader who has been driving community conversations in environmental sustainability. Lefkowitz led the GreenCityBlueLake Institute (GCBL) at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he helped the public explore sustainability, natural history, and how to change human systems to address the existential climate crisis.

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