The City Council's transportation committee held its hearing Friday morning on a revived "Shared Streets" program – on Zoom.
This comes after a short-lived pilot program of closing selected streets – a little more than a mile – so pedestrians and cyclists can use them ended earlier this month.
Mayor Bill de Blasio scrapped the plan, deeming it too dependent on precious police resources and staffing.
- LIVE UPDATES: Coronavirus in New York City
- LIVES LOST: Remembering Victims of the Coronavirus
- What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID-19
- CDC Coronavirus Page
- WHO Coronavirus Page
Friday's hearing was not short on passionate pleas to bring it back. Mary Beth Kelly, a founding member of Families for Safe Streets, said more space would benefit children riding bikes, parents pushing strollers, and people of all ages who need to exercise as the weather gets warmer. She also pointed out many parts of the city are dominated by sidewalks that make 6 feet of social distancing impossible.
"Stop making us squeeze down narrow sidewalks clinging to edges to stay alive," Kelly urged.
Others, like Queen Lucy Woody of Concourse, told transportation committee members to abandon the idea as premature.
“I'm against this bill. The city’s not ready,” Woody said.
The bill calls for closing nearly 75 miles of streets to traffic. Manhattan Councilwoman Carlina Rivera co-sponsored it with Speaker Corey Johnson as a public health measure necessary during the pandemic. With the weather turning warmer, and pools and beaches likely off-limits, New Yorkers will want to go outside.
While the supporters say opening streets to pedestrians will make it easier for people to distance themselves from each other, the mayor says other factors, like public safety and police staffing to enforce street closures, have to be worked out first.
"There are very real safety considerations on the other side of the equation if there's not enough enforcement, " de Blasio said. "And, I do worry about cars going on those streets, I do worry about the speeding we've seen lately."
But Johnson shot that down during his opening statement of the hearing. "I don't buy the idea that our drivers can't adjust," Johnson said.
The city’s transportation commissioner testified that Oakland and Denver, cities with their own "Shared Streets programs," do not have ambulances ferrying the sick or dying at all hours.
"The severity of what we're experiencing with the coronavirus – in that regard we are a tragic outlier," Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told committee members.
But the executive director of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives also urged city leaders to take control, and seize an opportunity to transform the city in favor of less pollution and a new post-COVID-19 vision for New Yorkers. He cited hundreds of cities around the world as setting the example New York should.
"New York City cannot be selectively exceptional,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris said. “We can’t be ‘the greatest city in the world’ but also not learn from other cities around the world who face similar challenges and are stepping up for their residents,"
Rivera believes with Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, and community boards on board, staffing shouldn't be a roadblock.
“I'm disappointed with the agencies for not bringing their own ideas today," she said. "I think we can have more trust in New Yorkers and not focus so much on policing."
One of the 35 people who signed up to make a public comment on the proposed bill was Cecil K. Brooks Jr of the South Bronx. He said "short-sighted" policy in urban planning has impacted livelihoods of people of communities of color.
"We should be able to figure out how to reroute 1 percent of our roads," he said.
Brooks said the "open streets" concept was a priority before COVID-19 decades ago, when urban planning displaced communities of color.
"One percent of our roads should not make you think you cannot do your job as a public servant," he said.
Next up, the committee will vote to send the bill to the Council for a vote, with Rivera confident a majority on the committee will support it. She says for the plan to really work, it needs to target communities where housing is predominantly multi-level housing or apartment buildings, not single-family homes that have backyards, and wide streets that make social distancing easy.