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  • Writer's pictureSpaceODT

Opening Up By Closing Streets (#1)

Updated: May 29, 2020

NYC has joined other cities around the world in closing streets to vehicles in order to provide more open space for pedestrians and cyclists to maintain social distancing guidelines, and reduce congestion in existing open spaces such as parks. This initiative expands the public realm by adding the surface of the roads to the pedestrian territory, providing more space for people to be in. While streets have always been a major component of the public realm, now more than ever our streets are less of an “in-between” space, and more of a “destination”. Less a space to pass through, and more a place to be in. With more food retailers selling directly to pedestrians on the street, and parks getting increasingly crowded, people have been using the street differently. Our streets now resemble a marketplace. Whether sitting on the curb or stoop, leaning on a parked car, standing in line, eating, drinking, and conversing, street gatherings have become a familiar sight in NYC.

East Village, May 2020

The decision to close streets to vehicles for pedestrian use is an understandable and necessary step in the multi-faceted fight against COVID 19. It begs the question which streets should be closed: If the intention is to increase public space so as to allow pedestrians more space to spread out, should the busiest streets be closed? Or, rather, the more desolate ones, in order to reduce the impact on the larger road network? We have set out to answer these questions and more by analyzing pedestrian flows in our local neighborhood, the East Village.

We asked:

Which streets are the most traveled by pedestrians when only essential businesses are open?

  • How do street closures affect the city’s road network as a whole? Which streets should remain open and which closed so as to avoid impacting this larger network? In our analysis, we used different computational tools such that various factors were considered.

We took into account the following:

  • Street width - the width includes any sidewalks, roads, bike lanes, and mediums between opposite building facades. While wider streets, such as those with multi-lane roads, may discourage pedestrian use, for the purposes of this study they are favored as they offer more space for maintaining social distancing while recreating.

  • Travel distances along various routes - anticipated travel between residential buildings to essential services and public open spaces such as fresh food retailers, pharmacies, and parks, based on the shortest possible path and alternative routes that may be slightly longer.

  • The number of residential units in each building.

  • Quality of walk - alongside the empirical study and simulations we’ve run, we’ve examined the quality of the walk by factoring in the number of trees on each street, under the assumption that the largest number of trees provide the most shade and therefore comfort

East Village Pedestrian Flow

To examine which streets are the most traveled by pedestrians and cyclists, we tested all possible travel routes within a defined walking distance, from all residential units in the East Village to all open fresh food retailers, pharmacies, and parks. It is important to note that walking distances are measured along the street grid, and not a radii - an aerial distance that doesn’t take into account buildings and boundaries that prevent walkthroughs.

We have analyzed routes that are equivalent to approximately 5, 10, 15, and 20-minute walks between residential units and the essential services accessed. For example, a 5-minute route study would limit the results to only show the options one pedestrian has to visit an essential business within a 5-minute walk of their origin.

Once we used this technique to find which streets are the most traveled for each walking distance, we compared the busiest street segments with their street width. This comparison allowed us to determine which street closures will provide the most meaningful additional public space, in terms of space for social distancing, and accessibility to essential retail and public amenities.

The results show that clusters of busy street segments exist west and north of Tompkins Square Park, forming what can be viewed as micro-neighborhood centers. More specifically, the combined measurements reveal that 1ST Ave between E7th and E11th street, and 2nd Ave between E6th and E9th street, are the busiest street segments with the widest street widths. Therefore, the closure of these streets will be the most beneficial in terms of enabling pedestrian spread and reducing congestion. The connecting cross streets - E11th, E10th, E9th, E8th, and E7th, between 1st Ave and Ave A - and Ave A between E8th street and E7th Street, show potentially busy routes on relatively narrow streets. These are the streets where we are most likely to meet other pedestrians on their way to the park, or shopping. E9th and E10th streets between 1st Ave and Ave A have a particularly high potential as a closed street due to their street tree density - therefore they can be viewed as providing the highest quality of walk. Including these cross streets in the street closure plan will create a continuous public space that is efficient in terms of pedestrian movement to essential services, allows pedestrians to spread further apart from one another, and provides access to already existing open, public infrastructure such as parks.

Recurring Street Closures? Possible Long Term Augmentation to Public Space

Our analysis revealed the hierarchy of streets in the East Village with regards to projected pedestrian movement. By using different methods of spatial analysis, we can estimate where we will most likely meet more of our neighbors while walking to essential businesses in our area. This analysis provides us with an empirical understanding of movement that can assist in making informed decisions about street closures such that this initiative will have the most desirable, positive impact on the neighborhood’s residents and their health. These investigations are a potential tool to not only optimize vehicular street closures in our immediate future but also offer insight into a longer-term augmentation of existing public space and amenities in our neighborhoods going forward. Can we, for example, imagine a scenario where select streets are closed every weekend, allowing pedestrians and businesses to enjoy wider walking and leisure space? Where “new” public space is added or reinvented every week? In our next installment, we will use a different method and examine the impact of select street closures on the city’s larger road network as a whole. We will analyze how a street closure in the East Village will affect traffic in Gramercy, for example. More about this and other ideas in later posts.

Data Source: NYC Open Data, NYS Office of Information Technology Services

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