In order to move ahead in innovation, sometimes it’s necessary to look to the past. This holds true for concepts in street design. Prior to the start of the 1900s, streets were designed with various modes of transportation in mind. When automobile sales starting booming, streets were recreated to accommodate more motor vehicles and higher speeds, pushing pedestrians and bicyclists to the waste side—literally.
The end result was a design focused primarily, if not completely, on motor vehicle accessibility, making it unsafe and impractical for other transportation methods. This design is one that Transportation Alternatives (T.A.), an organization devoted to reclaiming New York City streets for the use of walking, bicycling, and public transit, does not feel suits today’s 21st Century sustainable vision. “At the heart of it, streets are still about funneling motor vehicle traffic,” says T.A. communications director Wiley Norvell. “We really want to break open the mold and really revolutionize what the design vehicle of the street is.” The company hopes to makes streets “healthier” and complete in terms of incorporating alternative transportation effectively.
To help advocate for more sustainable and equitable city streets, the company is encouraging the public to get involved in a street design competition appropriately titled “Designing the 21st Century Street.” The competition’s purpose is to reshape the street by creating designs that are more balanced, safe, and sustainable for multiple transportation methods. “We are all still designing streets for cars,” Norvell says. “This competition is about looking for creative ways to completely change that and put pedestrian and bicycles as the prime real estate in the street.” Designers should consider T. A.‘s Green Transportation Hierarchy, a system that ranks pedestrians and bicyclists as most important and single occupancy vehicles as least significant in terms of sustainability.
Submission entries need to include a written explanation and visual image of a design idea for the intersection of 9th Street and 4th Avenue in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. This large chunk of slanting asphalt is a local truck route with two subway stops and several bus lines that stop on the corners. “We picked an intersection that is a major truck route,” Norvell says. “It is not safe for pedestrians and near suicidal for bicyclers.” He adds, “If we can make it a people and bike-friendly intersection, we can really take those lessons and apply them anywhere.”
The main issue with this intersection and many other city streets is that several modes of transportation are all competing for the space at the curb. Park cars, buses, bikes, and walkers are all fighting for the same area, making it unsafe. Norvell says the competition is about untangling these intertwining sections of space.
Even though T.A. is not working with the city’s government on the 21st Century Streets project, the organization has been instrumental in pioneering numerous campaigns and has frequently worked with the Department of Transportation and City Hall. Norvall says the company is confident that if they have a workable design, they can successfully push for it’s innovation.
And if creating a environmentally-friendly, safe, and complete street design isn’t motivation enough to register, there are monetary awards for participants. The winning design will receive $6,000; the runner up will receive $4,000; and 2nd runner up will receive $2,000. Entries will be judged by various professional architects, engineers, urban planners, and designers. The competition is open to the public. All design professionals, students, and individuals, regardless of design credentials, with an idea to improve New York City streets are welcome to register. Transportation Alternatives hopes “throwing it open to the talent in the city and all over the world” will encourage anyone with an interest in sustainable transportation design to participate. “[The idea] might come from someone who knows enough to make a rendering,” Norvell says, “but doesn’t know enough to put the people in one place and the cars in another.”
Deadlines for registration have been extended through Thursday, July 31st and entry submissions must be completed by Tuesday, September 2nd. The price to register is $30, but can be waived for students, non-profits, and other special cases.
“It’s a real movement,” he says, “A complete street movement.”
Visit 21stCenturyStreets.com to join the movement.
By Kathryn Kondracki for Next American City.