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Monday, May 4, 2020

Not-So-Safe Streets

During the current global pandemic, there has been a precipitous drop in driving. Traffic has all but evaporated on New York City's streets. Meanwhile, sidewalks and parks are not providing enough space for people to walk for essential trips, including some basic exercise. Repurposing the residual street space for walking is an obvious solution, and one that is increasingly pursued in cities around the world. New York has been slow to follow, with the Mayor resisting the very idea until continuing to refuse to open streets became politically untenable. Under order of the Governor to do something, he initially opened a few random streets and posted lots of police officers on every block. Shortly thereafter, he pulled it, claiming the police costs were too high.

Public and political pressure continued to mount, expecially as examples continued to come in from other cities. Photo after photo of from other cities closing streets with simple barriers without a heavy police presence made it untenable to continue insisting that New York City was so unique that we could not open our streets too. Finally, another small number of short street segments were announced for an initial opening this past weekend.
The first day at the Oval only had a small hiccup. The barriers were placed at Reservoir Oval itself, stopping traffic after it had turned onto one-way streets, with no good way to turn back around. When the street openings were announced with their mileages, I wondered why DOT had not taken credit for the additional mileage from those side streets. The day before the street opened, my 8-year-old son was even thinking out loud on his own about where the barriers would need to be placed for the one-way streets. Just a couple hours after the Safe Street opening, the NYPD recognized and corrected the situation by bringing out additional barriers to intercept the drivers before turning onto those streets. Still, it was an inexplicable mistake for professionals to make.
Aside from that initial problem, the Safe Street worked as designed. People were able to walk to the park or outside around the perimeter while maintaining adequate distance from others. Cyclists passed through. Car traffic was barely a trickle and respectful of people in the street. I watched as a police officer in an unmarked car stopped briefly to reposition one of the barriers.


The second day was an entirely different situation. It all got off to a bad start when the barriers were erected with the rules posted on the back side, where drivers could not see them. The barriers were quickly moved aside and the police were making no effort to reposition them. Drivers were downright disrespectful, honking at people to get out of their way, and when I didn't move for a driver to race by on my bike, he punish passed me.
It is hard to explain why it changed so much overnight. On the first day, despite an initial mistake, the NYPD was clearly monitoring the situation and took it seriously enough to fix the problem. Yet on the second day, they didn't get the set up right and neglected it throughout the day. The total lack of attention is even harder to explain, given the significantly larger than usual number of officers patrolling the park to enforce social distancing. Given all the public discourse about whether the "Safe Streets" need police coverage, I hope there wasn't a decision to withhold all police resources to prove that it doesn't work without policing.

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