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Where Covid’s Car-Free Streets Boosted Business

Yelp data shows greater consumer interest at restaurants on pedestrian-friendly “slow streets" that limited vehicle traffic during the pandemic.

Pedestrians walk along Fifth Avenue, closed to vehicles for outdoor dining, in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego. Some cities are considering making these Covid-era traffic restrictions permanent. 

Pedestrians walk along Fifth Avenue, closed to vehicles for outdoor dining, in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego. Some cities are considering making these Covid-era traffic restrictions permanent. 

Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg

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At first, the empty city streets of the pandemic were an eerie sign of a world in disorder. But when dozens of cities converted some of them to pedestrian-friendly corridors with restricted vehicle access, they became something else: an example of how readily urban space can be repurposed for mobility and play, and how quickly human activity can surge back when cars are removed. 

Now local officials are weighing whether to keep these temporary installations — known variously as “safe streets,” “slow streets,” “open streets,” and “stay healthy streets,” among other labels — in place for the long haul. A survey of 43 member cities of the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that 22 were planning on making Covid-era traffic changes permanent, while 16 more were considering it. At the end of April, New York City passed a bill making its Open Streets program — the most extensive in the U.S. — permanent, and California is mulling legislation that would streamline that process.