street fight

What’s Happening to Open Streets?

Photo: Photo: New York City Department of Transportation/Flickr, Mural: Cara Lynch

Streetsblog reported last week that Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue Open Street, one of Brooklyn’s most popular, has lost its sponsor and is now in search of a new one in order to open as planned this year. Another, Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, will be cutting its overall operating hours by 40 percent, reducing its season by two months (from May to September instead of April to October), and ending five hours earlier on Sundays. The programs, which close blocks to traffic to create more public space, have been celebrated, somewhat controversial, and undeniably successful. They are also expensive to maintain.

The Department of Transportation funds Open Streets, but local business groups and volunteers share costs for staffing and programming. With the expiration of pandemic grants, those partners say coming up with the money to run a thriving Open Street has become a challenge. The head of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, which is bowing out of the program, told Streetsblog that the group had to kick in about half the costs of the open street. Last year, that was $40,000. “All those pots of money have gradually dried up,” the group’s executive director, Joanna Tallantire, told Streetsblog, “so we don’t actually have any money to do the program this year.” (Another group is trying to step in and raise funds, and the Department of Transportation says it intends to find a new partner.) The head of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council cited a similar strain, telling Streetsblog that the funding it receives from the city “is only a fraction of what’s necessary to run something like Vanderbilt Avenue.” The people behind the 31st Avenue Open Street in Astoria told me they would likely also have to scale back this year. “We may need to consider operational changes,” they wrote in an email. “We’re collecting donations from the local community and taking out personal loans to keep the Open Street going as strong as possible while waiting for the city funds to come through.” (Others, like Jackson Heights’ 34th Avenue Open Street, which is owed $20,000 from last year, are waiting for reimbursement from the city, according to Streetsblog.)

Last year, the DOT announced an investment of an additional $30 million in public spaces, including open streets, through its Plaza Equity Program. A spokesperson also wrote that the DOT is “committed to continuing to provide funding — and even expanding resources — to locations in need to help them thrive” and cited the department’s commitment to provide staffing for Vanderbilt and permanent improvements to the corridor. But the challenges in the program remain: Wealthy areas that could raise funds ended up having more open streets than lower-income ones, which confused public-space improvements (which benefited pretty much anyone who wasn’t trying to drive through at that particular time) with gentrification. That so many open streets were retail strips, where bars and restaurants set up tables in the street and BIDs ran formal programming rather than leaving people to find more spontaneous uses, also made them seem bougier than they were or than they had to be to serve a public good. Just closing a street off to cars, it turned out, was often enough to make for a good open street. On Vanderbilt Avenue, families often brought folding chairs and food from home or grabbed snacks from the grocery store, while kids scooted and scribbled with chalk. The positives were clear: increased foot traffic — and revenues — for businesses, reduced traffic injuries. People also just liked them (a majority of New Yorkers, actually).

Safe-streets advocates and elected officials have long been advocating for a more permanent version of Open Streets. Back in 2021, after the City Council passed a bill making the Open Streets Program permanent and requiring the DOT to create and operate at least 20 of them across the five boroughs, several members of City Council called for hardened infrastructure and ongoing city support to make the streets more equitable and stable. (For example, deploying less labor-intensive models to block them off, such as retractable bollards or gates.) “A program like this should be paid for and staffed by the city,” says Doug Gordon, a safe-streets advocate.

This would approach a level of seriousness that’s already evident elsewhere in the world. Montreal’s Pedestrian Street Program — which includes government-funded summer-long closures of ten commercial streets — is still going strong, Paris is investing 300 million euros to turn hundreds of miles of road into pedestrian-only zones by 2030, and Barcelona has an ambitious superblock plan that would pedestrianize a huge chunk of the city. When describing the benefits of its plan, Paris’s deputy mayor of public spaces and mobility said, “Free, zero emissions, silent, good for your health — walking only has advantages.” An open street doesn’t have to be a party to be a good thing. Although, as so many have proved in the past four years, when you shut down a street to traffic, that’s often what you get.

This story has been updated to include comment from the Department of Transportation and details about its open-streets funding.

What’s Happening to Open Streets?