One of the most important urban movements of the past decade has been the livable streets movement — focused on making city streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists and less car-focused.
That movement is not without its controversies. In fact, fights over bike lanes and parking rules have arguably been the most contentious in the neighborhood. Hundreds of parking spots have been removed from the neighborhood in the past few years to make room for bike lanes or delivery and taxi pick-up spots.
Now, the coronavirus is adding new complexity to the debate. On the one hand, there are almost no cars in the street because of the lockdown and City Council members are pushing for those streets to be opened up for other uses — most importantly for pedestrians to have room to walk around outside while staying six feet away from each other. Cars seem like an impediment to that.
On the other hand, some people who have resisted getting cars now say they want one. Others who have advocated for reducing the number of cars say they see their utility more now. (The implicit concern here is that the coronavirus spreads easily on public transit, a contention that hasn’t been proven but has clearly raised worries among some people.)
“Cars challenge the city because they spread people out. COVID-19 threatens the city because it cloisters us in,” Upper West Side real estate broker, activist and philanthropist Jason Haber wrote in a recent Daily News op-ed. “The car brings with it freedom. COVID-19 is our jailer. Cars allow exploration. COVID-19 requires social distancing.”
Haber writes that he is a proponent for making cars “more compatible with city life” by adding bike lanes and congestion pricing tolls to streets. He has long been a critic of Robert Moses, whose changes to the city often prioritized cars at the expense of other modes of transit.
New York Times reporter Emma Fitzsimmons wrote on Twitter that she was reluctantly getting a car now that she has two kids and is concerned about Covid-19.
If you know me, you know I love the subway and have been adamant about not wanting to own a car.
With two small kids and uncertainty over public transit, we’re buying a used car.
It will be interesting to see how the pandemic changes where people live and how they get around.
— Emma G. Fitzsimmons (@emmagf) April 20, 2020
Streetsblog initially criticized her for contributing to a “less livable city”, before softening the criticism to a criticism of bad public policy: “The issue is the mayor and other elected officials whose decisions today — and those made over the 10 decades of the Automobile Age — have made cars the easy choice for so many American families (even those in New York City).”
Groups that are trying to deemphasize cars in the neighborhood, such as Streetopia UWS, are particularly focused now on making it easier for people to have space to walk and bike during the pandemic. That could include temporary bike lanes, a policy the local community board has voted for.
In the long-term, cars are almost certainly incompatible with a city poised to be hurt by climate change in the coming decades — and one where too many people still die because they were hit by cars. In the shorter-term, the question of whether it makes sense to own a car in the city seems more complicated.