Live-Blogging the Manhattan Transpo Policy Conference

I’m up at Columbia University covering Borough President Stringer’s Transportation Policy Conference, live:

10:40 am:

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia is the keynote speaker. In only one three-year term as Mayor, Penalosa revolutionized the transportation system and public spaces of his city of 7 million (Mayors only get one term in office in Bogota so he had to work fast). This was a big speech for Peñalosa. He even said that he was a little bit nervous about it. The crowd here is large — 600 people — and all of New York City’s major transportation policy players are in the room.

Here’s a bit of what Peñalosa said (insert mellifluous Colombian accent on your own):

"Today, we aren’t just talking about transportation. What we are really talking about is: What kind of city do we want? There has to be a collective decision about how do we want to organize our lives. NYC along time ago, explicitly or implicitly decided that much of the city’s space would be dedicated to cars. This was a decision. It’s not some sort of natural law. Tomorrow we can change this. This is something that we have to decide. Transportation is not a technical matter. It is a political matter."

Applause line: "How about if we took away curbside parking and made sidewalks bigger? I speak in cities around the world and present New York City’s sidewalks as the best, most lively sidewalks in the world. Still, they should be bigger. We did this in Bogota and it worked. New York City sidewalks, they could be much better."

"Manhattan could be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Applause (Editors note: Wow on the applause. This is not a room full of TransAlt and Times Up members, folks. This is a pretty staid crowd). In Bogota we closed the city’s streets to cars. I dream of Manhattan making a Broadway closure for pedestrians permanent. In Bogota we have the Sunday Ciclovía. We close the street on Sundays for bikes and joggers. I dream of this for Broadway for a few hours on Sundays."

"Bicycles are an amazing machine. If we are a democratic society then everyone has a right to safe mobility. But not everyone has access to a car. We have to think of a bike not as something that is cute or nice but a right. Safety for cyclists is a right. In a developing country cycling is a matter of democracy. Bike lanes are important, 20% for bike safety and 80% because it’s a symbol that a citizen on a $25 bicycle is just as important as one in a $30,000 car." Applause.

"Bogota had 30,000 individual bus owners. So we created the TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit system. The stations are in the middle of the street. When the bus comes four doors open and the bus floor is level with the covered platform. One hundred people can get in and out of the bus in seconds. Two dedicated lanes are going each wa. The system is moving more passengers per km/hour than most transit systems in the world. (Peñalosa shows a slide of automobile traffic completely jammed up next to a freely flowing bus lane). We called it TransMilenio to make it sound sexy. Buses have a bad name. The system is moving more than 1.4 million passengers a day. To pay for it we established a gasoline surcharge and 25% of the gas taxes goes towards financing TransMilenio." (More applause. What? Is this room filled with Communists!?)

"Why not a BRT while we wait for the Second Avenue subway to built? Make a bus that goes much faster than cars! Now Manhattan has beautiful buses but they move to slow. In our old, historic downtown people said the roads are too narrow for buses. We said, "You are totally right. So, now cars can not go downtown anymore." This is done in lots of cities — parts of town where only buses and bicycles can go.

"Forty-second Street as a pedestrian promenade. I think that would be beautiful. Applause.

"What are we working towards? What is our goal? A city where a child can go anywhere safely on a bicycle." (Standing Ovation).

10:00 am:

Six hundred people registered for the conference and this auditorium is packed. Scott Stringer just finished his talk. Guess what: Congestion pricing is an applause line now. Stringer: "Cities around the world have shown us what a transportation policy can be. London’s congestion pricing…. Copenhagen’s bike and bus lanes…. Solutions are within our grasp. We are now poised for that change. People will make adjustments if we give them a reason to do so. Congestion pricing and Bus Rapid Transit should be part of this discussion." BIG APPLAUSE

9:47 am:

DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall just finished her introductory speech. Thanks to a police investigation nixing subway service over the Manhattan Bridge I missed the first half of it. But I got here in time to hear Weinshall announce one piece of significant news: DOT has agreed to close the Times Square "bow tie" making way for big pedestrian space increases in Midtown’s congested heart. The "bow tie" is the segment of roadway between 42nd and 47th Streets that allows traffic to merge between 7th Avenue and Broadway. After the closure, cars traveling down 7th Avenue will be forced to continue down Broadway. Vehicles traveling down 7th Avenue will have to continue down Broadway. This entire middle section of Times Square will be given over to pedestrians. Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance has long sought this change. It will make traffic flow less complicated and creates a lot more pedestrian space within Times Square. Only a year ago powerful people within DOT were stymying the idea of closing the Times Square bow-tie. Today DOT’s Commissioner is touting the change. The Times, they are a-changing

  • Ben

    Wow. really great news about Times Square. and thanks for transcribing Penalosa’s speech. he’s as good as it gets.

  • I love his line about a street not being bike-friendly unless an 8-year-old child can ride along it safely. Yeah, thanks Aaron – great stuff.

  • Hannah

    Other specifics mentioned by Iris:
    -five corridors to test BRT [insert sexier name please] by fall 2007
    -expansion of Midtown pay-for-parking area south to 23rd, east to 2nd, west to 9th (?)
    -installation of neckdowns and medians galore in conjunction with first round of Safe Routes to Schools improvements
    -reallocation of street space to create more public plazas in all five boros (a la Willoughby Street in BK)

    She also said that protecting peds (or maybe it was preventing ped fatalities?) is DOT’s #1 priority, and that there is a need to reduce auto use. She said she was excited about the new office of strategic planning within DOT.

    Still, all in all, her speech didn’t seem to question the status quo. I thought that Stringer painted a much less rosy picture and suggested the need for more radical change, setting up Enrique to provide more vision.

  • I thought the Commissioner’s speech was a departure for city DOT both in terms of language used and in the packaging together of a set of reform policies. It could be an indication that the problem of planning for a future NYC of 9 million is starting to concretely impact city policy.

    The commissioner said DOT would:

    * Soon announce 5 bus rapid transit corridors, with accelerated construction (starting in fall 2007) on two of them. She also said NYC’s BRT system could become the world’s most extensive.

    * Implement the bikeway initiative, much discussed elsewhere in this blog.

    * Implement policies from its truck route study including nighttime restrictions in neighborhoods and work with local NYPD precincts on wayward truck problems – no time frame.

    * Expand muni-meter curbside parking pricing south in Midtown from 33rd to 23rd Street.

    * Lower Manhattan study to look in detail at optimal use of curb space. Would this contain potential to recommend or reinforce reining in of privileged parking or ousting of curbside parking in some areas for bus and bike lanes, or wider sidewalks?

    * Starting capital work stemming from Safe Routes to Schools studies – anticipates installation of 750 neckdowns and 70 medians in first round of work among other features.

    * A program to “boldly reimagine” city streetscapes and pursue “aggressive pedestrianization” building from the Willoughby Street reclamation in Brooklyn and similar projects planned for Astor Place, 1st Avenue along Stuyvesant Town and at a site downtown whose name I failed to catch, to proliferate “neighborhood plazas” around the five boroughs.

    * In major pedestrian areas like Herald and Times Square, build out permanent sidewalk infrastructure to the lines marked by paint and temporary bollards, and change Times Sq. traffic pattern to reclaim even more walking space as Aaron indicates above.

    * The DOT is setting up a new office of strategic planning to develop long range ideas in these regards, to be run by Steve Weber, who has handled post-9/11 lower Manhattan planning for the agency and before that worked at Regional Plan Association on a variety of transit-related projects.

  • AD

    Somebody help me visualize this. From Aaron’s report: “After the closure, cars traveling down 7th Avenue will be forced to continue down Broadway. Vehicles traveling down 7th Avenue will have to continue down Broadway. This entire middle section of Times Square will be given over to pedestrians.”

    Right now, IIRC, traffic coming from Broadway is forced to continue on Seventh, and traffic from Seventh has the option taking Broadway or Seventh. Both avenues converge precisely at 45th Street. I’m having trouble visualizing how they’re going to add space for peds at that intersection.

  • The item here describes the change – it basically eliminates the option to stay on 7th, and apparently a bike lane segment too:

    http://www.gothamist.com/archives/2006/10/08/times_square_is.php

  • It’s also just a one year test, not necessarily permanent. I’m all for experiments and proving they work. Weinshall omitted the bike lane segment being eliminated. They should connect the broadway bike lane down Seventh.

  • AD

    Thanks folks. This is a great move, following up on the DOT’s improvements to Herald Square some five years ago now.

  • someguy

    To be fair, there are downsides to the Times Square “Shuffle”. I believe 7th Ave gets more traffic and now that traffic will be forced down Broadway. What does that mean for the people advocating for a car-free Broadway if we are now putting MORE cars on Broadway? How does this impact the significant sidewalk expansions DOT is implementing soon at Herald Square – will they be jeopardized by worse traffic conditions being introduced into that equation? Will the new pedestrian space at 45th St in Times Square really be useable, or will it be so narrow that it will just be a dangerous “cattle chute”? Will the inside islands of Times Square no longer be mellow refuges among all the din and now just another place with pedestrians jostling to get through – will there be anywhere to rest and take in Times Square for tourists? Just some things to consider. There might have been legitimate reasons why closing the bowtie wasn’t initially the preferred option.

  • AD

    Good points someguy. I think it won’t be as bad for Broadway in the 30s as you might think. Seventh Avenue in the 50s is pretty light on traffic. Unlike Broadway which comes down from Upper Manhattan, Seventh is blocked by Central Park. Yes, it is an exit from the Park Drive, but that doesn’t have that much traffic on it (and shouldn’t have any). I think that once drivers realize that they can’t take Seventh Avenue anymore unless they want to get shuffled over to narrow two-lane Broadway, they’ll shift their patterns over and take Broadway in the 50s instead of Seventh.

    As an employee in Times Square for six years, I can heartily say that any more sidewalk or median space in Times Square is to be incredibly welcomed.

  • Hannah

    Upon further reflection, I see Orcutt’s point that this stuff is a departure for our DOT. I guess what I was reacting to was the presentation; it was not presented as a departure or an indictment of past priorities. If you didn’t know better when listening to the talk, you’d think the DOT had been coming up with stuff like this all along.

    To be fair, it’s pretty normal to not criticize oneself (or one’s agency) in public.

  • JK

    Part of me welcomes Weinshall’s words as symbols of a new reality in which City Hall has awaken to the public clamor to fix the dysfunction that is NYC streets. In this new reality, DOT must at least pledge allegiance to a new order in which motorists are not the top of the heap. This part thinks that whether Weinshall is sincere or not matters less than the fact that she was compelled to say what she did.

    Another part of me notes that every transportation improvement Weinshal cited has been advocated for, planned for and debated at length, and been stuck in the DOT morass for ages. Many are a fraction of what they should be: to get so little from the Truck Route study is appalling, and won’t provide relief; NYC style “BRT” may not be noticeable; Times Square ped improvements have been in the works for over a decade; the successful commercial congestion parking pricing is expanding at a slow pace. All this said, it’s a start and better than the near total stagnation.

  • JK

    Car-Free Central Park?

    Did Weinshall mention it?

  • ddartley

    Very slightly off-topic, but since people are reading, again I say convert just ONE on-street car parking space near the Bedford Ave. L station to an on-street bike parking space.

    Elderly people complaining about bikes on sidewalk? Cyclists being harassed? Both groups quickly made happier.

    (And then, of course, repeat that over and over throughout the City.) I mean, bikes are ROAD devices, aren’t they? Why shouldn’t they, like cars, be given the privilege of on-street space to stop, park, and lock up? They’re many, many times more space-efficient than cars! (Among 10,000 other reasons that cyclists deserve more privilege than motorists!)

  • One important difference that made Weinshall’s presentation stand out was that all of her remarks were made from a prepared text, while all the other speakers spoke directly to the audience.

    And no mention of Car free Central park…

  • EZ Rider

    Glenn,

    If Iris’s right-hand man David Wolloch were allowed to get up there and deliver the speech that he wrote himself, I’m sure he would. With Iris, this stuff isn’t from the heart, you know? She’s just reading the text. She could just as well be reading about water tunnel improvements as DEP Commish.

  • JK

    Back to Weinshall’s improvements for a moment —

    Skeptics (like me) should take note of the scale of the Safe Routes to School improvements and the fact that DOT is putting them in the ground now — I’ve seen new “speed limiters” sprouting. It shows a great deal of urgency that DOT is not waiting to install them until all of the planning is done, or until the CBs sign-off on them. I hope DOT takes some credit for them!

  • EZ Rider. As much as I liked much of what Iris said and that it came straight from the Comissioner, perhaps they should let Wolloch or someone else with a little more passion deliver speeches like that.

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