The city shut down a portion of 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights Thursday to nearly all motor vehicle traffic for 12 hours a day as part of its Open Streets program launched in response to the coronavirus.
The move closes 34th between 69th and 77th streets, a four-tenths of a mile stretch, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. The strip had been part of a pilot program closing some streets last month that the mayor quickly shut down, but now the administration is planning to do the same on 100 miles of roadway citywide in the months ahead.
So far the city says it has shuttered just over nine miles.
The goal is to provide people with more space to get outdoors while still social distancing. The city is asking Business Improvement Districts, community boards and other neighborhood organizations to propose more streets that can be shuttered to cars. Its announcement of the 34th Avenue closure was part of one listing others in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which will be managed by business groups, though the one in Jackson Heights will not.
The 34th Avenue closure marks the first time the city has shuttered a street in Queens in an area hard-hit by the coronavirus epidemic, a stated goal of Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. The other Queens closures, enacted last week, are in Long Island City, Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Forest Park, the latter on both the Woodhaven and Richmond Hill sides.
“Under Open Streets, pedestrians and cyclists can use the roadbed of the street,” the city said in its April 7 announcement. “No through traffic is permitted, with remaining vehicle traffic limited to local deliveries, pick-ups/drop-offs, necessary city service, utility, and emergency vehicles only. Such drivers are alerted to be hyper-vigilant and to drive at 5 MPH along these routes.”
The announcement contained quotes from myriad elected officials and business leaders thanking one another for the street closures and touting their benefits. The only Queens official quoted was state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-East Elmhurst).
“Creating open space for our community to travel from one place to another while facilitating social distancing is crucial to flattening the curve and ensuring our city can recover sooner than later,” Ramos said. “I thank the Mayor for prioritizing the safety of our neighbors in Jackson Heights and for encouraging more walking and bike riding as a means of travel."
The city said other organizations that want to propose roadways to be included in the Open Streets program should send an email to email@example.com. It said people could also fill out a survey at surveymonkey.com/r/nycsafestreets, but the link did not appear to be working Friday morning.
Some do not find the four-tenths of a mile closure in Jackson Heights to be enough. The Jackson Heights Green Alliance sent an open letter to the mayor on Thursday blasting the move as completely insufficient.
The alliance noted that Jackson Heights and adjacent areas are at the epicenter of the virus pandemic but that the neighborhood has only one park and some of the least open space in the city.
“This proposal is completely unacceptable to our community,” says the letter, signed by Shekar Krishnan of the alliance. “Not only does it not address the great needs of our neighborhood or reflect our input, it does not even align with this administration’s stated objectives of providing more open space equity for communities like ours who need it the most — especially at this moment in time.
“We are a neighborhood of frontline workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are low-income immigrants and are the most vulnerable to, and most impacted by, this pandemic. Nine blocks of closed streets for a neighborhood at the epicenter of this crisis shows an utter lack of empathy for what our community is experiencing right now. It is shockingly inadequate. And it raises serious questions about this administration’s commitment to this program, its intentions behind implementing it, and which parts of the city it has designed this initiative for.”
The group instead demanded that the city implement its idea of creating four car-free “superblocks” between Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, or Northern and Broadway in one case. For example, in one superblock, the alliance would shut down 84th through 89th streets from Roosevelt to Northern and 34th, 35th and 37th avenues from 84th to 89th. It would allow buses to use 35th Avenue.
It is not clear how long the shutdowns the city is putting into effect will last. Officials initially said they only would last as long as New York PAUSE — which stands for Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone and refers to Gov. Cuomo’s collection of stay-at-home and social distancing orders — but now are speaking of enacting more “in the weeks and months ahead.”
Safety advocates, bicyclist organizations and environmentalists have long sought to reduce the street space available to motor vehicles, aside from electric bicycles, in order to reduce injuries and fatalities from crashes, to cut down on air pollution and to establish what they believe is a more equitable distribution of public space.