How to Give Streets Back to People

Implementation considerations for New York City's next leaders

Rendering of a transformed Union Square, with busways, trees, public seating, and loads of pedestrians. Source: Marvel / Union Square Partnership

A wholesale transformation of New York City’s public space from car-dominance to a variety of better uses will require a deliberate strategy around management and governance. To date, the work that New York City has done to convert car space into space for people has been largely project based, and most transformations were localized, one-off successes. The challenge for New York City’s next leaders will be how to scale recent successes citywide and holistically manage our public space. This is an admittedly large challenge and one that is necessary for New York’s next leaders to address head-on. But the overwhelming public support across demographics for all kinds of street improvements, and the urgency of our economic, health, traffic violence, equity and climate crises all add up to a broad mandate for change.

Because these kinds of interventions need to work on multiple scales — systemic improvements to our transportation network and targeted, community-specific improvements at the block level — New York City’s next leaders will need an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to management, community engagement, phasing, enforcement, and revenue. Transportation Alternatives challenges mayoral and City Council candidates to return a significant and sizable portion of car space to people, to do so with meaningful community engagement, and to implement, maintain and fund these projects with concrete and sustainable plans.


A holistic managerial approach to transforming city streets into a shared public space will require a new role in city government to manage the streets as a complicated inter-agency enterprise. This role will need to coordinate between city agencies such as the Department of Transportation, Parks Department, Department of Design and Construction and the Department of Education, among others, as well as outside partners and community groups. Most importantly, the role will need the authority to set priorities and allocate funding across agencies.


  1. How will your administration change the City’s approach to managing streets?
  2. How will you staff this change in a way that endows proper, crosscutting authority to set priorities and make cross-agency budget decisions? (Will you create a new cross-disciplinary role in the mayor’s office? Will you create a Mayor’s Office of Public Space, Deputy Mayor of Public Space, or similar position?)
  3. What data, technology, and assets from each agency will your administration rely on in your management?


  • How will you overcome past administrations’ burdensome requirements for private maintenance partners for infrastructure like pedestrian plazas and bike corrals?
  • How will you future-proof your management structure against changing political whims and budget cuts?
  • How would you integrate the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and elevate the power and expertise of epidemiologists in the management of streets as public space?


These changes will require strong community partnerships and meaningful local engagement that transcends top-down decision making. Conversations around use of street space have long been divisive; community engagement around equitable reallocation of street space needs to be centered on a goal of healing. For certain components of this proposal — including the conversion of car parking spaces for on-street seating, the expansion of Open Streets, and the repurposing of school-adjacent streets — a committed, dedicated, and enthusiastic community partner can be essential to the successful implementation and ongoing success of the improvement.


  1. How will you center community voices and leverage partnerships to plan and implement the reallocation of street space?
  2. How will your community engagement approach respond to community-specific needs, knowledge and opportunities? How will you ensure local residents and community groups can play a meaningful role in deciding what gets built in their neighborhood?
  3. What community partnerships will you rely on to advance this vision? How will you leverage community partnerships to manage ongoing maintenance, operations, and programming of community spaces?


  • How will you broaden community engagement beyond the status quo of Community Boards, whose members are often not representative of the demographics of the neighborhoods they serve?
  • How will you engage the disability community to ensure that street changes meet the needs of, and are clearly communicated to, New Yorkers with disabilities?
  • In less-resourced communities, how will you compensate community organizations for the labor of the engagement process?
  • Will you abide by open government data principles to promote transparency, accountability and value creation? If so, how?


A reimagined streetscape and reinvigorated transit network can be the key to New York City’s recovery, but only with a solid strategy for funding and revenue generation. There are opportunities for direct revenue, such as the expansion of demand-based metered parking, which could bring in, by conservative estimates, more than $1 billion in revenue to the City of New York annually. Other tactics, such as the reinstatement of the New York City commuter tax, would create new sustainable revenue streams. There are also opportunities to leverage the private sector to create financial incentive programs to encourage transit use over driving.


  1. How will you use streets to drive revenue and improve the fiscal health of the City?
  2. How will you price the use of street space as a citywide system?
  3. To pay for this plan, will you reinstate the New York City commuter tax? Institute a mileage tax on non-commercial drivers? Charge an even higher registration fee for oversize vehicles, including SUVs and light trucks? Work with the State of New York to implement other taxes or sustainable commuter incentives?


  • How will you leverage the private sector to create sustainable, reliable funding streams for new infrastructure and reduce ongoing operational costs and risks to taxpayers?
  • What sort of incentive or penalty programs will you consider when partnering with large companies to reduce driving among their employees?
  • Would you build in a price incentive to use electric vehicles or other sustainable choices?


New safe streets and transportation infrastructure is only as good as the City’s willingness to ensure it is usable. This means enforcement — making sure bike lanes and bus lanes remain open and that dedicated freight zones are not used for unauthorized parking. But this must be done in a responsible, equitable, and safe way. In New York City, seven out of 10 likely voters support the idea of ending armed police traffic enforcement. The current enforcement of traffic laws by armed police puts New Yorkers, especially Black and Latino New Yorkers, at risk of police violence and is also a relatively ineffective method for making streets safe. Much of the budget once dedicated to police traffic enforcement could instead create self-enforcing streets. Fair and equitably placed automated enforcement, such as red light cameras and speed safety cameras, can fill in the gaps as self-enforcing streets are built citywide and as New York City drivers adjust to this new normal.


  1. What will your enforcement approach be to ensure that bike lanes, bus lanes, and other dedicated car-free spaces remain free and open for their intended use?
  2. How will you expand bias-free camera enforcement technology, such as bike lane and crosswalk cameras that protect the right of way, and speeding and red light cameras that serve as a deterrent to reckless drivers?
  3. How will you reallocate resources to help ensure that Black and Latino New Yorkers, in particular, can use our streets without fear of policing?


  • Will your administration reallocate funds away from the NYPD traffic enforcement budget to remove traffic enforcement from police purview?
  • What is your vision for including traffic enforcement agents and school crossing guards, (currently under the NYPD) in the solution for safer streets? How will you ensure the safety of these guards and agents to protect them from reckless driving and assault?
  • How will you address placard abuse and ensure proper operation of City fleet vehicles, including right-sizing fleets that have grown in recent years?


Rebalancing streets away from cars and toward people will have an outsized impact in some neighborhoods. Communities that have suffered the most from disinvestment and neglect have the most to gain from the economic, environmental, public health, and public safety benefits of new open space and must be prioritized. Access to a new express bus in a car-free dedicated bus lane, for example, can provide a lifeline to an essential worker who would otherwise be out of range of the city’s public transit system. Similarly, adding open space in communities that are currently outside of a five-minute walk of a park or playground can have an immediate and lasting impact on health on individual and community levels.


  1. How will you balance equity, urgency, and economic feasibility to make the greatest impact for the most New Yorkers in the shortest amount of time? What will our streets look like within 100 days of your taking office?
  2. What metrics will you use to determine where need is greatest? Is it where other kinds of infrastructure — transit, open space, street safety measures — are the most lacking? Is it where the negative impacts of car dominance are the highest?
  3. How will you anticipate the city’s needs for the future rather than just the present?


  • How will you acknowledge and take action to correct the racist legacy of urban highways and other inequities inflicted by urban planning?
  • How will you build for commutes that are becoming more local and less oriented around central business districts?
  • What bold actions will you take first? Will you start with the most visible transformation?

Picture of an Open Street in Chinatown, diners at the Open Restaurants, and pedestrians comfortably walking the street. Source: Scott Heins / TA