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
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.
THIS NEW MAP from the NYC DOT shows where pedestrians are killed in Manhattan. The overwhelming majority of the deaths happen to city residents who don’t own cars, to workers in the Manhattan who used public transit for their commute, or to tourists who arrived by plane, bus, or train.
If we had fewer people driving, and all people driving slowly, we could cut those deaths to zero. #VisionZero
Photo courtesy of Galina Tahchieva @ DPZ
ALMOST ALL STREETS IN PARIS now have speed limits of 20 or 12.5 miles per hour (30 or 20 kph). The rue Norvins in Montmartre was already slower than that. Why? Not because of a city-set speed limit or police enforcement, but because of the natural design speed of the street.
The narrow roadway, the poor lines of sight, the rough cobblestones, the unforgiving stone bollards at the edge of the street, the lack of traffic signs (there’s only one, which limits cars to those belonging to residents between 3 pm and 2 am), and most of all, the free-range pedestrians in the middle of the street—these all produce a space that makes drivers unacomfortable driving quickly.
English authorities are introducing a number of shared space streets there. I haven’t seen most of them, so I can’t say much about the Sea of Change film that makes the proposal that new shared space streets in England are frequently unsafe for the blind and disabled. That’s obviously an important issue—if we are going to make slow streets that use slow speed and a lack of the traffic engineer’s separation of car and pedestrian to make safer streets, then we need to make them safer for everyone.