Seize The Moment To Take Streets Back From Cars

Benno Martens
4 min readMay 26, 2021

It will never be easier than it is right now.

image via Street Lab

“For cities to return to the pre-pandemic status quo would be a historic blunder,” Janette Sadik-Khan wrote last month in The Atlantic. “Last year’s innovations provided a road map — no pun intended — for undoing the planning sins of the 20th century.”

I wrote a couple of weeks ago on my personal website about my conviction that one of the most important things city builders can do today is aim to take space from cars and give it to people.

My hope as we slowly emerge from the pandemic is that we’re beginning to learn just how much better open streets are for people and quality of life, and how much more efficient they are in using space in ways that are actually productive for local businesses and local tax bases.

We can have streets closed to vehicular traffic so that people can walk, bike, jog, play, and congregate. We can take over redundant roads with pop-up retail. We can utilize parking spaces for outdoor dining, DORAs, and seating. We have seen the benefits of taking space from cars and giving it to people.

An opportunity passing by

It turns out Sadik-Khan, the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, had plenty of thoughts on this subject as well.

“With traffic congestion still well below normal levels, and with the memory of car-free streets still fresh, cities can keep reducing their dependence on private vehicle ownership by making their streets more attractive and accessible to people without cars,” she wrote.

According to research from Boston University that Sadik-Khan cites in the article, however, many cities that experimented with open streets in 2020 are not planning to continue their programs, seeing them as a temporary fix rather than a long-term shift in vision.

Of the 130 mayors across the United States that the researchers surveyed, “nearly half said they had closed…

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Benno Martens

Community development professional. Writing about city planning, development, and placemaking. bennomartens.com