Even though the Bloomberg administration has been a strong advocate for installing new cycling infrastructure in New York City, it’s still rare to see widespread support in the neighborhoods most directly affected by its initiatives. So when I hear of communities rallying to the cause of transportation reform and making a strong statement in favor of dethroning the automobile from its current perch atop the city’s transit hierarchy, I can’t help but get excited.
As part of the NYC Streets Renaissance campaign and under the guidance of the good people at Transportation Alternatives and the Open Planning Project, the residents of the Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan came together to work with the noted Danish planner Jan Gehl to create the “Blueprint for the Upper West Side: A Roadmap for Truly Livable Streets” (PDF). The blueprint is a comprehensive redesign of a the neighborhood’s streets, making them safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists by employing a whole grab-bag of street-design tricks that have been successful in North America and Europe. To my knowledge, this is the first large-scale total makeover of an entire district to gain such widespread support in the U.S. (though if you know of another, I’d love to hear about it). Not only do the community members themselves support the plan, but local governmental leaders are also lining up behind the changes it recommends. Community Board 7, which represents the Upper West Side, has spoken out in favor of it as has the neighborhood’s representative in the NYS state assembly, Linda Rosenthal.
What seems to me most remarkable about the plan is the understanding it demonstrates of the special problems New York City faces — by which I mean, the utter lawlessness of the city’s streets. One of my biggest pet peeves after moving to the city has been the seeming inability of the NYPD to punish anyone for traffic violations, be they driver, cyclist or pedestrian. I have never, not once, seen a cop give out a ticket for double-parking, speeding, reckless driving (i.e. turning across 3 lanes of traffic) or anything else. There seems to be a general feeling that if you can get away with it despite the incredible congestion of people and vehicles, well, it’s safe enough. Stupid situation, to be sure, but it seems unlikely to change anytime soon. What that means is we need our traffic control built into our streets so that enforcement oversight isn’t necessary.
Let me give a few examples of what I’m talking about with the self-regulating design features found in the plan: Curb extensions shorten crossing points for pedestrians, raise pedestrian visibility, and force sharper turning angles for cars. Bulb-outs allow buses to stop and start without having to push back into traffic, provide seating to encourage pedestrianization, create a collection point for garbage and recycling freeing up usable sidewalk space. Chicanes (fabricated S-shaped paths) narrow roadways and force drivers to slow down on the sidestreets. Physically separated bike lanes don’t allow autos to use the space for double-parking or passing. Bicycle boxes (painted spaces in front of cars at stop lights) in conjunction with lead pedestrian intervals (signaling “walk” before the light turns green) at crosswalks provide cyclists the head-start they need to safely enter an intersection ensuring total visibility to the cars behind them.
All in all, it’s a very ambitious, yet commonsensical, set of proposals that represents the chance for transforming a neighborhood divided by wide streets carrying fast moving traffic into a safer, more pleasant community and I would urge you all to check the link to the PDF of the report posted above as well as their website. More than that, it represents a real reason to hope that NYC is moving in the right direction in its thinking on transportation policy not only among the higher-ups in the Bloomberg administration but on a grassroots level as well. Remember that this is an experiment. New York is a much, much bigger city than those in which these types of anti-automobile measures have been successfully implemented. Copenhagen has only half a million people living on 175.9 square miles compared to New York’s 8 million on 304.8 square miles. So even though we’re late to the game, I imagine the whole world will be watching as New York tries to remake its cityscape and shed its reliance on automobiles once and for all.