Turning city streets into places for people, not cars

I was researching bicycle buses when I came across School Streets, an idea that began in an Italian city in 1989 but burst into exuberant life on some New York City streets during the COVID pandemic. In fact, it morphed from School Streets to Open Streets – which practically, meant open for people rather than cars. And its success has supercharged the idea of reimagining city streets.

The Italian experiment began as a way to manage traffic during peak school pick-up and drop-off hours, and make things safer for kids. Bolzano/Bozen temporarily closed streets around schools to traffic for 15 minutes at the start and end of the school day. Creating these temporary car-free zones eliminated congestion, and reduced accidents.  School staff, known as school guides, close the streets with movable signs and also work with traffic education to motivate children to walk or cycle to school. 

Some cities, like Edinburgh and London in the UK, have also created School Streets. So has Denmark. In Canada, there are School Streets in Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, Markham, and Kingston, and Montreal. It’s gotten inspiration from 8 80 Cities, which says that “if everything we do in our public spaces is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people” and has worked on more than 16 Open Streets programs across North America. Streets Plans, an award winning firm with offices in Miami, New York City, and San Francisco, inspired the Open Streets Project in 2011.

When the pandemic made indoor gatherings almost impossible, people turned to the streets. In California, Oakland created “slow streets” and Berkeley created “healthy streets”. Chicago created ‘shared streets’, and New York City created Open Streets – closing some streets to car traffic – and Open Restaurants – allowing restaurants to serve diners on sidewalks and streets. Many residents and urban planners say the experiment, which eventually covered 83 miles of streets at its peak, shows how city streets could be reimagined.

While other cities are scaling back or ending those programs, New York City is moving ahead, bolstered by a recent report showing how the Open Streets program boosted restaurants and bars – even more than the Open Restaurants program. Mayor Eric Adams said the two programs “helped keep our restaurants and the city’s economy afloat” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “This report echoes what we have heard in communities across the city: Opening our streets can kickstart small businesses, create jobs and lift up neighborhoods.”

34th Avenue, New York City’s most celebrated open street, is hailed as the “gold standard of what a modern street should look like in a sustainable and equitable city that has fewer polluting cars and more space for people,” said the New York Times. “It anchors a network of dozens of miles of open streets across the city that was created in response to the outbreak and provides a tantalizing glimpse of a future of traffic-free streets.”

Social worker Myrna Tinoco, 45, who roller skates on the avenue with her six-year-old son, calls it “a whole exercise in what is possible..At a minimum, just to have the legroom to stretch out would have been a godsend — and what we got was a little miracle.”

It was a miracle that was, in fact, driven by local residents more than by the city itself. In March 2020, the city introduced four open streets including 34th Avenue. Police staffed the barriers. But two weeks later, the experiment was halted.

Then Jim Burke, 55, and his neighbors set out to show how a street for people could be run in grass-roots fashion. “People my age used to play in the street, but unfortunately cars kind of took over,” he said. “We wanted to show people the amazing things you can do in the street.” SInce then, the 34th Ave Open Streets Coalition has grown to more than 140 volunteers. Using a spreadsheet, they sign up to put up and take down barriers every day across 26 blocks of the avenue.

New York has more than 6,000 miles of streets, making up almost a quarter of the city’s total land area and pre-pandemic, it was mostly reserved for vehicles. But the pandemic showed that streets could be used for much more, from increasing open space in poor and minority communities to reducing air pollution and supporting local businesses. “These are the open spaces we have in our cities that everyone can access,” says urban planner Mike Lydon. “Programming them so they are not just mobility corridors is absolutely a lesson of the pandemic.”

Not everyone agrees, and a push to turn 34th Avenue into a “linear park,” where cars would be permanently restricted, has provoked a backlash. Some people complain that 34th Avenue has turned into an obstacle course and made it harder to find parking and get deliveries and services in a neighborhood where many depend on cars.

As for Mr. Burke, the unofficial mayor of 34th Avenue, who greets neighbors, recruits volunteers and patrols the street in a bright orange vest, he welcomes the change. “One of the densest parts of Queens has become a small town.”


The Pandemic Gave New York City ‘Open Streets.’ Will They Survive? New York Times, Aug. 9, 2021

Report: Open Streets program gave ‘vital boost’ to eateries. Spectrum News, Oct. 25, 2022

A Queens Avenue Shows How City Streets Can be Reimagined. New York Times, Aug. 9, 2021

Ideas and Examples for mobility challenges in neighbourhoods. SUNRISE.

School Streets. 8 80 Cities.