During the pandemic lockdown, New York City’s relentless traffic virtually disappeared, leaving a vast expanse of asphalt up for grabs in one of the world’s most crowded cities.
Neighborhood arteries once jammed with cars teemed with people eager to escape tiny apartments. Packs of new cyclists staked their claim. Sidewalk curbs were repurposed with tables and chairs for outdoor dining.
But as New York recovers and traffic returns, there is a growing tug of war over who gets to use this huge inventory of open space: the city’s 6,000 miles of streets. The future of such contested space has become a key issue in the race for the next mayor, who will be responsible for managing the streets.
“People talk about streets in the context of the future of the city and what the city will look like,” said George Arzt, a political consultant and former press secretary to Mayor Edward I. Koch. “They want more parks and bike lanes. They want a better quality of life.”
Still, the issue becomes “a real migraine for candidates,” Mr. Arzt added, because the next mayor will have to strike a balance between the push for a more livable city and the daily demands of businesses, emergency services and New Yorkers who depend on cars to get around, especially in transit deserts outside Manhattan.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, under pressure from transportation advocates and others, has expanded and made permanent an Open Streets program, a pandemic initiative that temporarily closed up to 83 miles of streets to traffic to allow for more walking, cycling and outdoor dining.
But one of Mr. de Blasio’s signature transportation policies, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities, has faltered in part because some drivers have taken advantage of fewer cars on the road to speed and drag race.
There were 99 traffic-related fatalities reported as of May 31, the highest number in that five-month period since 2013, according to city data.
Eight leading Democratic mayoral candidates, in response to written questions from The New York Times, shared their plans for making city streets safer, less gridlocked and more equitable, from creating more protected bike lanes and open streets to using congestion fees to discourage car use and reduce vehicle emissions.
“We are a city of pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, drivers and mass transit riders,” said Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president. “The use of our streets must reflect all of those uses safely while encouraging forms of movement that reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Or as Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner, put it: “Today our streets and sidewalks are a losing battle between competing uses.”
Here’s what the candidates said they would do:
Push congestion pricing to get cars off the road.
All the candidates back a state-approved congestion pricing plan that is expected to reduce traffic by charging fees for driving into the busiest parts of Manhattan, from 60th Street down to The Battery.
New York would follow other cities around the world, but would be the first American city to impose such a fee.
“We have to lean into this nation-leading change and view it as a chance to further cut down on car traffic,” said Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate.
Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, and Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mr. de Blasio, said they planned to work with state and federal officials to roll out congestion pricing, which requires federal approval and had stalled under the Trump administration, as soon as possible.
Revenues from congestion fees will help pay for transit improvements. Raymond McGuire, a former Wall Street executive, said he would ensure that money was not wasted, saying, “We need to make sure the revenue is being invested in the most transit-starved neighborhoods.”
Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive, said that she would explore expanding congestion pricing to other areas and offering subsidies and tax breaks to people who take alternatives to cars.
Build more lanes for bikes.
Cycling took off in the pandemic as virus-wary people avoided the subway and instead hit the bike lanes.
All the candidates said they would build more bike lanes, with a focus on creating an interconnected network of protected lanes linking the city.
“The rollout of new bike lanes and pedestrian areas has been far too slow,” said Mr. Yang, who has biked with his children to school. “We need a break from the past to start making real progress on bike and pedestrian safety and infrastructure.”
Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, has called for 350 miles of new bike lanes in five years, including 75 miles around schools.
Mr. Adams would build 300 miles of new protected bike lanes in four years, including “bicycle superhighways” using road space under elevated highways and railways. Ms. Garcia wants at least 250 miles of new protected lanes.
Ms. Morales, who recently bought a bike, said she would build 500 miles of new protected bikes lanes, which is part of NYC 25×25, a call by an influential advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, to reimagine a car-centric streetscape by 2025.
“I’ve been able to gain a firsthand understanding of the issues for cyclists in New York City,” Ms. Morales said.
To keep bike lanes clear of cars, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Yang said they would install automated cameras to help issue tickets to drivers caught blocking bike lanes. Ms. Garcia said she would also increase enforcement of bike lane violations.
In addition, Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams said they would make sure that bike lanes were cleared of snow as quickly as car lanes, a frequent complaint among bikers. Ms Garcia said she would get equipment to plow and clean trash from bike lanes more effectively.
Increase New Yorkers’ access to bikes.
Four candidates — Mr. Adams, Mr. Stringer, Ms. Wiley and Mr. McGuire — said they would expand the city’s popular bike share program, Citi Bike, to get more New Yorkers on bikes, especially in poor and minority communities.
Mr. McGuire added that he would develop a citywide master bike plan “rather than the piecemeal community board approach that has dominated in the past.”
Ms. Morales called for moving toward a municipal-controlled bike share program, which would be free to city residents and prioritize docking stations in transit deserts.
Mr. Adams also proposed a new citywide network of shared electric bikes and scooters, especially in transit deserts, while Mr. Stringer said he would offer subsidies for bike share fees and e-bike purchases.
Five candidates — Mr. Adams, Mr. Stringer, Mr. Yang, Ms. Wiley and Ms. Garcia — said they would also increase bike parking around the city, including near bus stops and subway and train stations. Mr. Yang wants to convert car parking spots in front of schools and public libraries into bike corrals.
Open more streets for people.
At least three candidates — Mr. Stringer, Mr. Adams and Mr. Yang — would build on the success of the Open Streets program by expanding it to more low-income and minority neighborhoods with a dearth of open space.
Mr. Yang said he would go even further and follow the city of Barcelona’s lead in creating “superblocks,” in which contiguous blocks are largely closed to traffic and streets are turned into plazas, playgrounds and gardens.
“The program has been a huge success in Barcelona,” Mr. Yang said, “and it will also be a great way to draw tourists back to the city and to support small businesses.”
Ms. Wiley said she would create an office of public space management to work with communities “to permanently and safely reallocate road space to cycling infrastructure, protected bike lanes, walking, community gatherings, and green urban design projects.”
Ms. Garcia, who wants to “prioritize the public in our city’s public spaces,” and Mr. Adams said they would convert 25 percent of the space currently used for cars to space for people, which is also part of the call for NYC 25×25.
Rethink deliveries and highways.
The pandemic sent online shopping surging, bringing more deliveries to a city already choked by cars and trucks.
Mr. Adams said he would seek to shift more truck deliveries to off hours, and Ms Garcia said she would explore ways to reduce truck congestion and improve safety for delivery workers.
Mr. Donovan and Mr. Stringer said they would add more cargo loading zones to cut down on double parking. “By reimagining how we allocate curb space, we can make our streets more fair, less congested, and far more efficient,” Mr. Donovan said.
In addition, Mr. Stringer said he wanted to scale back the size of aging highways like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that are scheduled for renovation or replacement, and to limit large S.U.V.s by working with state officials to increase their registration fees.
“The next mayor must kick-start massive reform of our transportation system that gets cars and trucks off the road,” Mr. Stringer said, “because taking on climate change and improving public health must be a central pillar in our recovery from Covid.”
Design safer streets and expand technology.
Ms. Wiley said she would fast-track efforts to redesign some of the city’s most dangerous streets, including Queens Boulevard.
Intersections, she said, could be made safer by installing more islands for waiting pedestrians and cyclists, and designating no-parking zones at curbs in front of crosswalks to make it easier to see pedestrians.
Mr. McGuire said he would add at least 100 speed bumps to slow down drivers and add 25 million feet of roadway safety markings citywide. Mr. Donovan said that “envisioning new street design delivered in a more cost-effective way can promote safe cycling.”
Several candidates said they also planned to use technology to improve the streets. Mr. Adams said he would partner with tech companies to monitor traffic patterns in real time and look for ways to reduce congestion.
Ms. Garcia and Mr. Donovan said they would expand the use of enforcement cameras, which help issue tickets for speeding and reckless driving.
“With more strategic and consistent automated enforcement,” Mr. Donovan said, “we can make streets safer and stop traffic violence in New York City.”