People-friendly street changes should be 24/7

By Annie Weinstock

Several streets in Downtown Birmingham, UK are 24/7 pedestrian zones. Photo credit: Annie Weinstock

The Flushing Main Street Busway in Queens, that opened this January, operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 24/7 operations for any changes to streets which deprioritize cars, is surprisingly rare in the US. By contrast, the Jay Street Busway in Brooklyn operates from 7am to 7pm M-F and the 14th Street Busway in Manhattan operates from 6am to 10pm every day.

Painted curbside bus lanes generally suffer from the same phenomenon: in New York City, curbside bus lanes on 1st and 2nd Avenues operate from 7am-10am and 2pm-7pm on weekdays only while bus lanes offset from parking are 24/7. Bedford and Nostrand Avenue bus lanes are also peak period only, but different hours, confusing drivers.

Source: nyc.gov

The Open Streets program, a new program which opens certain streets to people and bicycles only, has incredible variability in its hours but none are 24/7.

Sample of Open Streets in Manhattan and their hours of operation. Source: nyc.gov

The issue for bus lanes is parking and loading

From a traffic perspective, the bus lanes and busways that are not 24/7 could be, easily. The hardest time to grab road real estate from cars is during the peak periods when traffic congestion is the worst. All of the bus lanes mentioned above already operate during the peak. Off-peak is the easy part.

So why do drivers even care?

Parking. Drivers may not mind giving up a travel lane off-peak but they do mind giving up overnight parking. The other issue is truck loading, which requires curb access.

These are good reasons to move curbside bus lanes to the central median and why median bus lanes, like the new EL Grant Highway bus lane in the Bronx, usually are 24/7.

The new EL Grant Highway bus lane, in the center of the road, is 24/7 because there is no demand for parking or loading in a median bus lane. Photo courtesy of NYCDOT

However, even in a curbside bus lane or a busway, it is, of course, possible to ban overnight and off-peak parking, it just takes political will. And it is certainly possible to allow loading during certain hours in a curbside bus lane without opening it up to everyone. Better, though, would be to provide loading zones near the corner of every cross street adjacent to a bus lane or busway.

The issue for Open Streets is a bit different

In NYC, Open Streets are community led. If a community or a Business Improvement District (BID) wants to have an Open Street, they apply to the city and usually get it. Some allow parking, some don’t. The hours they operate are not the typical peak for traffic — they are the peak for stores and restaurants. There may well be more traffic on those streets when they are not operating as Open Streets.

Like bus lanes, Open Streets have parking and loading issues to contend with.

That said, not every decision in the city must be based on traffic engineering rules and the convenience of parking a car. Many cities around the world have 24/7 pedestrian streets in commercial areas (what we call Open Streets) that do not allow parking.

Loading is more complicated as businesses need deliveries to survive. For a single pedestrian street, it is again, ok to provide loading zones near the corners of cross streets. But cities with thriving pedestrian streets often expand those streets to larger zones.

Bilbao, Spain, for example, has a vibrant pedestrian zone in its old town (Casco Viejo) and allows small sanitation, street cleaning, and delivery trucks during early morning hours and cargo bike deliveries throughout the day. Allowing e-bike deliveries at any time could be a real incentive to delivery companies to begin to move in that direction.

A UPS e-bike makes deliveries through Bilbao’s pedestrianized Casco Viejo. Photo credit: Walter Hook

The New York City #OpenStreets Coalition, a group led by Transportation Alternatives and made up of 63 local community groups, is rightly asking for the streets to operate 24/7 (among other important asks). Ultimately, the city should take ownership of the Open Streets program and should extend a number of them to 24/7 permanent operation, with parking prohibitions and a well thought-through loading policy.

24/7 operation sends an important message

Just as it is true that off-peak bus lanes affect drivers less than peak period bus lanes, lower congestion off-peak means they are less necessary for buses. But the critical thing is this: when a city decides to hand its streets back over to cars overnight, it is giving a nod to drivers that the streets are still theirs. When the same city decides to let its car-free lanes and streets operate 24/7, it sends a message to everyone that it is serious about de-emphasizing cars and beginning to prioritize people.

London is beginning to figure this out. In September of 2020, the city announced that they would extend the hours of 50 miles of their existing bus lanes to 24/7. Their reason was (rightly) to “discourage a car-led recovery from coronavirus.” Of course, even London’s bus lane enforcement expansion has carveouts for parking in the bus lanes during off-peak hours, making them functionally not a bus lane in those locations.

Even in London’s expanded bus lane enforcement program, parking is permitted in the bus lanes off-peak at some locations. Source: tfl.gov.uk

Other cities, like San Francisco and Chicago converted some peak-hour bus-only lanes to 24/7 during Covid-19 but made clear that the changes were temporary. We all need to do better.

24/7 operations pave the way for permanent change

I discussed in a previous post about busways that the goal should be permanence. And not just a declaration of permanence but a full street redesign that recognizes new and better uses. This can only be possible with 24/7 operations.

In Mexico City, Calle Madero in the Centro Histórico was initially closed to traffic one day per week, as shop owners were skeptical. After some time, businesses found that it was more profitable to be on a pedestrianized street than one with vehicles, so the pedestrianization was made permanent.

Calle Madero in Mexico City was pedestrianized 24/7 only after one-day-a-week pedestrianization proved successful. Photo credit: ProtoplasmaKid

The shop owners on Open Streets in NYC are now seeing the same results from their temporary street closures that their Mexican counterparts did ten years ago. According to Mark Caserta, the Executive Director of the 5th Avenue BID, businesses are making $3k-$6k more on an Open Street Saturday than they were making on a normal Saturday before the pandemic.

Making our Open Streets 24/7 and permanent, without parking, would be a great next step towards fully building them out as great, permanent spaces for people.

Reorientations is a blog by the staff of People-Oriented Cities. Each post provides a novel idea for “reorienting” cities away from cars and towards people.