Follow Up Letter To Mayor de Blasio from the Open Streets Coalition

Metal barricade on the 34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights

Dear Mayor de Blasio,

We are members of the citywide Open Streets Coalition, including leaders and supporters who have helped maintain and support the Open Streets program in New York City for the past ten months.

We last wrote to you on March 19, 2021 with suggestions for strengthening the program, including, but not limited to, funding for organizers, permanent barriers, and a shift to 24/7 operation. While we are heartened that you announced on March 25 that local groups may be eligible to receive city funding, we are concerned that your latest announcement still does not set up the Open Streets program to achieve its full potential.

We hope you take the following suggestions and feedback to heart and work with the local organizers who understand the ins and outs of how to make this program come to life. We are only writing today because we care so much about the future of this program, have seen how much it can positively impact New Yorkers, and want to partner with your administration to bring this program to the next level. We welcome the opportunity to meet with you or your team to talk through these suggestions and share our on-the-ground knowledge from the past year.

Volunteer Model + Public Funding: Open Streets are managed by volunteer groups, which are powered by the tireless labor of individual New Yorkers to improve their communities. In your latest announcement, you doubled-down on the community group model, rather than relying upon the NYC DOT, to select and operate areas for Open Streets. In the long run, we believe that this model is unsustainable and inequitable. Managing Open Streets has become more than a full-time job for many of the organizers, who have to manage daily operations of setting up barricades, volunteer coordination, social media, weather/safety monitoring, and sometimes even vicious attacks perpetrated by the vocal minority of New Yorkers who do not support the program. We are glad that City Hall has made the program permanent, but it is unsustainable for the program to be managed by volunteers in the long run. Open Streets groups need a dedicated stream of city funding to hire staff that can be fairly compensated. While your latest announcement said that groups may be eligible for a limited amount of funding this year, we are unable to fully plan for the season without knowing what, if any, funding is available for our groups. Local groups that may want to begin an Open Street may not even embark upon the lengthy application process because they have no clear understanding of what resources will be provided.

Our suggestions:

  • Clarify exactly what sort of funding Open Streets will be eligible for this year;
  • Utilize municipal employees to assist with Open Street operations, as is done in Denver, Portland, Seattle, and many other cities. While the pandemic has upended jobs for countless New Yorkers — and as our city budget is newly infused with cash from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan — there is a good opportunity for the city to grow a workforce that can help to manage Open Streets that are vital for New York City’s healthy and equitable recovery.
  • Consider additional partnerships for Open Streets personnel, including opportunities for high school students to earn credit for working with an Open Streets group, for paid summer jobs as part of SYEP, or partnering with workforce development organizations to create new job opportunities for New Yorkers.

Equity and Fairness: The question of funding is closely followed by one of equity. We are concerned that the uncertainty around funding for Open Streets will lead to a lack of Open Streets in neighborhoods that are historically under-resourced — predominantly communities of color. A more concrete plan for how Open Streets will be funded will encourage a more diverse group of communities to apply. Allotting Open Streets only where volunteer groups apply to host one, with no promise of city funding, could lead to Open Streets serving more affluent communities. It takes considerable resources to complete the new application and provide free labor each day to manage Open Streets, which is why some communities have had to turn to crowdfunding to support their Open Street this year. But not every community can turn to crowdfunding, or rely upon significant volunteer hours to execute this program. In summer 2020, Transportation Alternatives found that the Open Streets program was initially concentrated in wealthier, whiter communities. We cannot let that happen again.

Our suggestions:

  • Proactively reach out to CBOs in a wide range of New York City neighborhoods with information about and guaranteed funding for operating an Open Street.
  • Identify neighborhoods where no community group has applied to manage an Open Street and embark upon a community engagement process to select optimal sites for Open Streets. Once that is completed, utilize city resources to begin, staff, and manage the Open Street. This will help ensure this program is spread equitably, no matter if there is a local volunteer group who is able to manage and fund the program day-to-day.

Permanent Infrastructure and Self-Enforcing Streets: In your latest announcement, you included renderings of new barriers for Open Streets. While it is a step in the right direction to utilize metal “French” barricades instead of wooden ones, we still urge you to install more permanent infrastructure on Open Streets and create self-enforcing streets through redesigns. Even where metal barricades currently exist, some New Yorkers who oppose Open Streets have gone so far as to lock barricades with bike locks to prevent them from being placed in the street by volunteers. Metal barricades are also often knocked over or not put back into position by drivers who make local deliveries on Open Streets. Installing permanent infrastructure, permanently redesigning streets (such as installing mid-block dead ends, building bump-outs at corners), and changing traffic patterns would send a signal that Open Streets are a long-term, ingrained part of a neighborhood. They are also much more effective than temporary barriers. This would give certainty to hard-working community groups that their efforts can continue for the long term in a space that they have cultivated.

Our suggestions:

  • Install permanent safety bump-outs at intersections to deter speeding, shorten crosswalks, and create a natural entry-point for pedestrians to enter an Open Street. This treatment would serve as a natural deterrent for through-traffic while still allowing emergency access.
  • Pilot self-enforcing Open Streets that either change the direction of traffic or utilize mid-block dead ends that allow for local deliveries and emergency access without relying upon barricades each block.
  • Bring together a group of Open Streets leaders, DOT staff, and private-sector urban designers to workshop ideas for permanent infrastructure solutions that could be implemented on Open Streets. This solution should prevent unnecessary through-traffic while allowing for easy emergency access. The long-term goal should not center around heavy objects that volunteers need to personally move multiple times each day.
  • Consider other barricade types that could be easily implemented this spring, such as planters or barricades on wheels. While metal barricades are more durable, their heavy weight will likely disincentivize drivers from repositioning if they need to enter an Open Street for a local delivery.
  • Post more prominent signage and embark upon a public awareness campaign to make clear that Open Streets are for local traffic only, have a lower speed limit, and that motor vehicles must yield to pedestrians.

Permits for Programming: Open Streets have created fantastic opportunities for communities to experiment with creative public programming. Since the Open Streets program began, groups have organized free socially-distanced workout classes, ESOL classes, children’s programming, and much, much more on our public streets. This programming brings communities together, promotes physical health, provides cultural groups with spaces to safely showcase their work, and creates engaging opportunities for children, seniors, and parents as our city recovers from the pandemic. However, NYC DOT has instructed Open Streets groups that they will have to obtain permission from the Street Activity Permit Office (SAPO) for any Open Streets programming going forward. This requirement could extinguish the ability for local groups to serve their communities with outdoor programming that has fulfilled a real need during the pandemic. This process requires organizers to complete substantial applications and pay an application fee for every instance of programming that is to happen on their street. These applications are to be filled out weeks in advance of the programming taking place and are subject to approval by the local Community Board and NYPD precinct. Not only is this process time consuming and costly, it also severely inhibits opportunities for groups to adapt and meet their community’s needs in the moment. For example, if there is an unseasonably warm day in the fall, an Open Streets group would technically not be able to host a children’s relay race or senior Zumba class to take advantage of the sunshine because they had not filled out and paid for a SAPO permit for this activity weeks in advance. Open Streets organizers should be able to creatively plan programming that meets the needs of their neighborhood in the moment while following ongoing health and safety regulations.

Our Suggestions:

  • We believe that Open Streets programming will be strongest when it can be nimble, creative, and not reliant on a multi-agency city approvals process. If any programming is to go through city approvals, the approval process should be shifted from SAPO to NYC DOT, an agency that is already working daily with Open Streets organizers and best understands the nuances and needs of the individual Open Streets.
  • In the short term, SAPO should issue blanket approvals for regularly recurring activities on Open Streets. Open Streets organizers should not have to pay and apply for a SAPO permit for each individual fitness class, for example, that they will host on a regular, recurring basis for a whole season.
  • SAPO should waive permit application fees for Open Streets groups. Many are small, grassroots organizations with limited budgets that are already stretched as they work to manage their Open Streets. Permit fees could limit the amount of programming that an individual organization could produce, especially if separate permits are required for each instance of a regularly recurring event. Permit fees also unfairly impact Open Streets organizations operating in lower-income communities that cannot embark upon crowdfunding campaigns to raise money from local residents.
  • SAPO should shorten timelines needed for approving activities on Open Streets, allowing organizers to more flexibly plan and adapt to weather.
  • SAPO should host workshop sessions with Open Streets organizers to walk them through the permit application process and to also receive feedback on how this process can be improved for Open Streets specifically.
  • SAPO should notify Open Streets organizers if a business, non-profit, or government entity receives approval to host an event on the Open Street they manage.

Liability: There should be no liability or insurance requirements for Open Streets managed by volunteers. Many of our community groups have been managing Open Streets with an extremely limited group of volunteers and little-to-no budget. We are largely non-hierarchical groups without large budgets and without 501(c)(3) designations. The new application process repeatedly refers to “staff” throughout the form. Considering that many of our groups do not have paid staff and are not incorporated, we are concerned that the new arrangement will make our volunteers personally liable for anything that were to happen on a stretch of an Open Street we manage. The threat of severe financial or litigation risk is not something we can ask our volunteers to accept. The City, not individual residents or groups, should assume liability for Open Streets, as they would for any public street or highway.

Our suggestions:

  • Make clear that the City of New York will treat Open Streets as they would any other public street with respect to questions of liability.
  • When an Open Street is maintained by any unincorporated group of volunteers, the City must assume liability for acts or omissions by those volunteers when operating or maintaining the Open Street.
  • Make clear that home-owners are also not liable for activities that take place on a public Open Street in front of their home.

Beyond these points, we hope you will also implement our suggestions from our March 19 letter. These include, but are not limited to:

  • After assessment by the NYC DOT, determine which Open Streets can be shifted to 24/7 full-time operation.
  • Codify into law the reduction of the speed limit on Open Streets to five miles per hour.
  • Connect Open Streets into a useful transportation network, bringing residents to retail corridors, transportation hubs, and open park space.
  • Provide amenities, such as signage, benches, chairs and planters to provide for a safer and more inviting experience.
  • Provide daily programming to encourage Open Streets usage by the local community, including exercise classes, educational programming, arts and cultural performances, and more.

We hope that these suggestions serve you as we continue fighting COVID-19 and building a safer, more liveable city. As the city recovers from the pandemic, Open Streets must be seen as a tool to maintain physical distance, a cornerstone of vibrant communities, and a priority for our city budget, newly infused with funding from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

Sincerely,

#OpenStreets Coalition

CC: NYC DOT Commissioner Henry Gutman

Mayor’s Office of Citywide Events and SAPO Executive Director Ellyn Canfield

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams

Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Borough President Eric Adams

Borough President Gale A. Brewer

Borough President Donovan Richards Jr.

Borough President James Oddo

Council Speaker Corey Johnson

Council Member Carlina Rivera

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

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