Open Streets Program: Should It Stay or Should It Go?

New Yorkers are reminded of the busy city’s open streets program through boulevard barricades.

Article and Photos by Yadira Gonzalez | December 9, 2021

After a week of school and work, college student Vicki Kanellopoulous usually enjoys a night out with her friends, driving around and finding spots to eat. She often visits Astoria, Queens, known for its Mediterranean cuisine. She parks her car a few blocks down the road and walks past the barricades onto Ditmars Boulevard. Every weekend, the street is closed off to all motor traffic and dining tables and families have replaced buses and cars.

“It’s a good thing for weekend nights,” Kanellopoulous said. “It gives restaurants more space for outside seating and it can make people feel safer when walking on the street.”

Ditmars Boulevard is one of the 274 Open Streets listed by the Department of Transportation in New York City. During weekends, these streets are closed off using barriers, which temporarily halt all traffic, except for pedestrians.

The Open Streets Program became a way of life for many restaurants and businesses during the pandemic.

Open Streets became a permanent part of New York City in May after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed official legislation to continue the program beyond the pandemic. “COVID-19 is temporary, but getting the most out of life in New York City is permanent,” de Blasio said in a press release. “Open Streets are here to stay.”

For many people who visit areas like Ditmars Boulevard, the Open Streets offer friendly outdoor spaces. However, some residents and local employees have mixed views on the program.

Karina Rios, who works behind the counter at Martha’s Country Bakery on Ditmars Boulevard, rides her bicycle to work whenever the weather permits. The barricades were first implemented to facilitate non-car transportation, including bicycling. Yet, she thinks the barriers make her ride to work more difficult.

“I have to go around, through sidewalks, through people, trying to not hit any cars or any restaurants outdoors,” Rios said. “It just makes it very dangerous, very unorganized.”

Safety may seem like an issue when pedestrians, bicyclists and restaurant stands are all supposed to coexist in the same space. But according to Transportation Alternatives (TransAlt), a non-profit organization that advocates for more walking, biking and public transit for New Yorkers, Open Streets have lowered the number of accidents.

“It also benefits [motorists] too because they’re not in their car all day long. People that drive still walk around, they still move around in non-car ways,” TransAlt spokesperson Jacob deCastro said. “Open Streets help them do that better and safer.” 

Despite the ease for pedestrians to walk through this area, a few restaurants have not been benefitting from the program.

Santiago Rodriguez is a cook at Local Kitchen in Ditmars Boulevard, a restaurant that serves a variety of food options from salads to pasta, mostly for take-out. Before the pandemic, he recalls seeing many people coming and going through the shop. “The house was super busy,” Rodriguez said.

Local Kitchen’s slogan is “Where Community Dines.”

Rodriguez says that with the street blocked, Local Kitchen’s business has been cut in half, since fewer people can drive by to pick up food.  He says there is another reason the Open Streets program has not helped the restaurant. “We don’t sell alcohol, so there is not a lot of people to sit down here, enjoy their day, and have a drink,” Rodriguez said.

The Open Streets program has brought unanticipated changes for those that work within the areas. Yet, the aid it has offered other businesses and communities overall may justify keeping it. TransAlt released a report that has addressed several of the issues, with recommendations on how the city could continue to work to improve it. 

Even the cook at Local Kitchen seems to think the program is here to stay. “It’s fine. Eventually, we’ll all be fine,” Rodriguez said.