By Alex Israel
To the delight of local residents and community groups, West 103rd Street has received a barricade upgrade as part of NYC Open Streets. The city program aims to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists by creating public space for people to walk and ride without fear of being struck by vehicles. But the new barricade is just a small part of the first phase in what some hope will become a permanent fixture.
In 2020, the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) significantly expanded the Open Streets program in response to the pandemic, opening applications to community groups willing to maintain a set area of more than one continuous block.
In response, neighborhood volunteers formed the West 103rd Street Open Streets Community Coalition to apply for daily Open Streets from Riverside Drive to Broadway. Since receiving approval last spring, the Coalition has served as the DOT’s local partner, which involves barricade maintenance as well as coordinating programming and communicating program guidelines with local stakeholders, among other operational responsibilities.
Under ‘Temporary Limited Local Access’ distinction, vehicle traffic on the two-avenue stretch of West 103rd Street is limited to local deliveries, pick-ups and drop-offs, and necessary city, utility, and emergency vehicles while Open Streets are in effect—daily, between 8am and 8pm—according to DOT guidelines. Drivers are also advised to exhibit caution and drive at a maximum of 5 MPH in the area via signage posted to barricades placed on the impacted streets.
On April 5 2021, Coalition volunteers celebrated as DOT upgraded that barricade from a single, painted wood NYPD barrier to the new standard: two metal barricades with bright orange signage, split by a 15-foot emergency lane. Among the supporters was Peter Frishauf, Founding Director of StreetsPAC and Coalition member who shared video of the upgraded barricades, flanked by other excited volunteers, on Twitter.
New @NYC_DOT barricades on Bway & 103 + WEA are a step up from old NYPD wood. TY volunteers w W 103 St Open Street Community Coalition. Our hope: @ParkToPark103. @TransAlt @StreetopiaUWS @StreetsblogNYC @StreetsPAC @UWSBlockAssn #OpenStreets#citiesforpeople#NYC25x25 pic.twitter.com/KQOyg7PO2y
— pfrishauf (@pfrishauf) April 5, 2021
Minutes later, Frishauf shared a second video featuring a taxi driving between the barricades at a speed well over the maximum. “That’s a major case of why people aren’t using it more,” Frishauf later told WSR. “They just can’t trust motorist behavior.” Still, he believes the upgraded barricades are a good step towards public safety and visibility. “It can be scary,” he said, “But for the most part they work well,” he added, noting that simple measures could be taken to further curtail speeding, such as installing automated speed cameras like those found throughout the city.
The Coalition has already added custom signage featuring larger text to supplement the messaging, an enhancement to which Frishauf says DOT is open: “They do want this to work.”
Rogue speeders aside, Frishauf says the block sees significantly less thru traffic compared to other Upper West Side cross streets due to the NYCHA housing block between Amsterdam and Manhattan Avenues. That’s one of many driving factors behind “Park to Park 103”, an initiative from the Coalition that aims to build on the success of the temporary Open Streets program to something more permanent across all of West 103rd Street.
Rachel Albetski, a project planner at urban planning, design, and research-advocacy firm Street Plans Collaborative, walked WSR through the “park to park vision” for West 103rd Street between Riverside and Central Parks. The firm was brought on by Open Plans, an advocacy organization dedicated to improving transportation systems, to conduct research and outreach to ultimately inform a recommendation for a “21st-century street.”
Initial findings were clear: “This street is begging to be redesigned,” Albetski said. In a survey of 195 local residents in summer of 2020, Street Plans Collaborative found that 88 percent of respondents traveled the block primarily by foot, and only about a third owned a car at all. Four in 5 people were open to replacing a few of the street’s parking spots with something else, like trash collection, seating, greenery, or another public amenity.
In the short term, the Coalition is applying to expand the Open Street to Amsterdam, and planning a slate of public “activations” to invite more neighbors to experience the benefits. In the long term, its goal is to create a continuous park-to-park corridor from Central Park to Riverside Park that connects the car-free Frederick Douglass Houses at the center to the streets around it.
Included among the elements up for consideration are: new paint treatments to better signal to vehicles on the street; modern, sanitary bays for trash collection; “parklets” with greenery; designated loading zones; and dedicated seating areas accompanied by art installations. “We’d love to see a self-enforcing slow street that helps cars navigate the space slowly,” Albetski said, adding that West 103rd Street is the ideal block to pilot a program like this—”this is basically a street served up on a platter.”
Outreach to local organizations like the NYCHA Tenant Association and the Broadway Mall Association, as well as local businesses like Hosteling International and Purple Circle, is already happening, and will continue throughout the spring and summer. So far, the response has been generally positive. “Everyone that we’ve spoken to so far has been really receptive to the idea,” Albetski said.
Once community engagement and further surveys are complete, the Coalition will present a plan to DOT and ideally work closely alongside them to bring the vision of a permanent Open Street to life.
“We have two world class parks. We have a low traffic street,” said Albetski. “It’s begging to be seen as a 21st-century street that works for people, not just automobiles.”