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Who Gets the Streets Now? - Slate

The restaurants who needed them to survive? The humans who endured the pandemic city? Or their old owners, cars?

The city wants to build a bike lane, and the car people want to stop it.


If you follow local politics anywhere, you’ve heard this story before. But this time there’s a twist: Businesses on Washington, D.C.’s Ninth Street NW aren’t just fighting to keep parking spots so their customers can drive to dinner. Like so many restaurants around the country, establishments like Unconventional Diner and Cuba Libre have converted curbside parking spaces into open-air dining rooms. So when Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the go-ahead on a two-way, parking-protected bike lane that would eat up 80 spaces along the corridor, the neighborhood business group Shaw Main Streets warned DCist that the bike lane could prompt a “business bloodbath.”


As the pandemic ebbs, cities across the country must adjudicate what has suddenly become a dizzyingly open question: Who owns the streets? After a year in which all the old rules went out the window, some urbanites are eager for a return to normal—which is to say, a system that assumes the streets are for driving and for parking. But many, many others have had a revelation that my colleague Dan Kois so nicely summarized as the shutdowns descended last March: “[T]he coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit.” Just as the TSA suddenly permitted 12-ounce bottles of carry-on hand sanitizer, it took about 90 days for local governments to adopt enough new ideas for what a city should look like to tie up a community board for a decade. Was it an aberrant reaction to a hundred-year plague—or a sudden glimpse of the future?


Racial justice protesters made the streets their own, with impromptu plazas in Minneapolis, Washington, and Brooklyn—some city-sanctioned and permanent, some eventually dismantled. Wooden sawhorses and police barriers in New York, San Francisco, and Oakland transformed asphalt into playgrounds. Enforcement of 50-year-old restrictions on drinking alcohol in public plummeted (albeit unevenly) as to-go cocktails were legalized in cities like Chicago and states like California. Most dramatically of all, tens of thousands of curbside parking spaces were turned over to cafés and restaurants, whose funky, jury-rigged sheds became a symbol of the city’s resilience and vitality. Not dead yet!


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