The debate continues over how to make New York City’s streets less crowded, safer and better for people as well as cars. Some, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, call for congestion pricing in Manhattan, although so far the New York State Legislature has not allowed that. Mayor Bill de Blasio and groups such as Transportation Alternatives promote Vision Zero, aiming for zero traffic deaths in New York City by 2024.
It’s worth looking at European cities, which have led the movement to make city streets that are as good for public life as they are for driving. In recent months, I’ve visited four of the cities with the most innovative street designs: London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
Today is the fifth Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. For some thoughts about that, click here.
THE BROAD crossroads where Wall Street and Broad Street come together is a beautiful space, fully the equal of medieval European plazas. Today, post-911, it’s closed to almost all traffic, because the New York Stock Exchange sits at the southwest corner of the intersection. A few weeks ago, it was the symbolic center of the NYC DOT’s Shared Streets Lower Manhattan, when one Saturday afternoon 60 blocks were designated “shared spaces,” where “Pedestrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles will share the historic streets of Lower Manhattan and motorists [were] encouraged to drive 5 mph.”
When Americans talk about shared space, someone will often say, “We’re not Amsterdam.” Well, parts of Nieuw Amsterdam / New York City make a good place to start shared space experiments. Eighty per cent of Manhattan residents don’t own a car, and only twenty per cent of Manhattan workers commute to work by private car. Then add the fact that many streets in the Financial District have restricted access: some streets are only open to residents or workers employed on the street; while other streets have tank barricades and are only open to emergency and delivery vehicles.
In the real Amsterdam, 85% of the streets today have s speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (18.6 mph), and the other 15% have a top speed of 50 kph (31 mph). On the slower streets, pedestrian and cyclist have as much right to the street as cars and trucks, and may be anywhere on the street at any time. All of the detritus of traffic engineering—bold stripes and arrows painted on the pavement, large signs, colored bus lanes, and the like—is missing, and at the intersections, there are no stop lights, stop signs, yield signs, or crosswalks. Motor vehicles must be driven at a speed that successfully allows cars and trucks to stop for pedestrians and cyclists in the intersection.
That is “Shared Space.” That is the spirit behind the experiment the DOT tried out on Saturday, August 13, and what it hopes to try again in the future. I hope they will and therefore I make Broad Street my Street of the Day. Some of the my notes on that continue below. Continue reading
Great Barrington’s Main Street should be a place where place people want to get out of their cars to shop, eat, and socialize—under a majestic canopy of tall trees. That’s not what State DOTs build, however.
This story originally ran in the Berkshire Record, following earlier stories (links below).
AN OLD CHINESE PROVERB says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” In other words, it’s not too late to fix the economic and social problems the recent rebuilding of Main Street brought to town.
Great Barrington’s Main Street has lost the curb appeal that helped make it the Smithsonian’s best small town in America. “That’s just aesthetics,” some will say — including a few who contributed to the design decisions that make the new Main Street so ugly — but what real estate brokers and developers call “curb appeal” is not just aesthetics. It has economic value and social outcomes.
Let’s look first at the trees on Main Street. Studies by groups like the city of Portland, Oregon, the Yale School of Forestry and the National Association of Realtors show that majestic street canopies like the one Great Barrington used to have increase retail sales and real estate values. Surveys in which people walk around towns and cities recording the places they like and don’t like show that we are attracted to places with beautiful trees. The book The Happy City establishes that beautiful, mature trees increase our day-to-day happiness, and a growing body of research in cognitive science is beginning to record the data behind these effects.
First they came for the pedestrian plazas, then they came for the Desnudas.* But the Times Square plazas that cover a few blocks of Broadway seem to have survived. And even though the plazas are full of tourists shopping at tourist traps, New Yorkers love them. Thank you Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan.
Since 80% of Manhattanites don’t own a car and at least 75% of all New Yorkers love the street design revolution brought by Mayor Mike and his DOT Commissioner, why was the survival of the plazas ever in question? Because we all grew up in the age of the automobile and our streets are still controlled by traffic engineers, who were all taught in school that their job is to make traffic flow fast and smooth, like water in a pipe. So the evolution of the revolution can be slow. Seventh Avenue still sends a torrent of cars through Times Square (see below) and sometimes makes even The Crossroads of the World seem like an auto sewer—but the revolution is happening! Happy New Year to all and to all a good night.
* If you’re not a New Yorker, you may have to Google this.
November 13th—Friday the 13th—marked the 13th day in a row that a pedestrian died on a New York City Street, all killed by cars or buses going too fast. They were among the 19 pedestrian deaths in the city last month—basically, one person lost for every business day. These fatalities occurred because despite all the progress New York has made since Mayor de Blasio and his DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg signed the Vision Zero Pledge in December 2013 (more on this below), most of our city streets are still seen primarily as transportation corridors for cars and trucks.
Until we prioritize pedestrian safety over traffic flow, we will never get to zero deaths for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, or their passengers. But the good news is that when we do make streets that are safe for pedestrians, traffic still flows—and it becomes easy to design streets where people can want to get out of their cars and walk, enjoying public life. Which, after all, is what city life is all about. We don’t have to choose between pedestrian plazas in Times Square and suburban-style arterials. We can have our cake and eat it too.
A little history is relevant here: for decades, our city streets have been controlled by the DOT—the Department of Transportation— which employs traffic engineers and transportation planners who have traditionally seen their job as making traffic flow quickly and safely. They use a federal grading system that grades street quality according to the “Level of Service” (LOS)—a measurement of how well traffic moves.
Anything that impeded traffic flow was a problem to be identified and eliminated. Trees became known as Fixed Hazardous Objects (FHOs), because they damage cars that hit them. Standard practice in traffic engineering is therefore to confine trees to a Vegetative Containment Zone kept away from the vehicles.
People are called MHOs—Moving Hazardous Objects. They also slow down and damage cars that hit them, and so they’re kept away from the cars too.
WHEN I SHOWED A TRANSFORMATION FOR QUEENS BOULEVARD that included trees over the subway beneath the wide street, some people naturally had some doubts about how well the trees would grow. But look at these trees above the similar “cut and cover” subway at Broadway and 86th Street in Manhattan. “Cut and cover” is a construction process in which the street is dug up, the tracks are laid, and then the street is put back like a roof. I haven’t examined the drawings for either Queens Boulevard or Broadway, but the details should be similar.
Imagine how much better Broadway would look if the trees chosen had come from one of the great street tree species that form majestic canopies (they weren’t), or if the trees had been properly planted for healthy and mature growth (ditto). That means not only giving the roots enough room to spread out, but also planting trees like sycamores in conditions that allows their roots to intermingle, because we know now that many of the great street species share disease resistance through their roots. And today we have systems like Silva Cells for conditions where we know soil compaction and root spread can be a problem.
Now imagine how much worse Broadway would look without any trees…
Made in the shade at the corner of Broadway and West 86th Street, perfect for a hot August afternoon.