The City That Never Walks

The messenger is unexpected — Robert Sullivan, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine — but the message to Mayor Bloomberg on today’s New York Times op/ed page is clear: It is time to act. When it comes to building a more livable urban environment and reversing automobile domination, New York City is falling behind other world cities. In fact, we’re even lagging behind a number of American cities too, Sullivan writes:

I am saddened to see our city falling behind places like downtown Albuquerque, where one-way streets have become more pedestrian-friendly two-way streets, and car lanes are replaced by bike lanes, with bike racks everywhere. Then there is Grand Rapids, Mich., which has a walkable downtown with purposely limited parking and is home to a new bus plaza that is part of a mass transit renaissance in Michigan. 

The editorial references three recent Transportation Alternatives’ studies and touches on so many stories that we’ve been covering, that I’ve created a version of the article with embedded links to Streetsblog and other sources. It’s such a good, comprehensive little piece, it’s hard to decide what to excerpt, so I’ll just leave it at this:

"Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places," wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We’ve already lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of their cars soon, the city’s future residents won’t have a reason to.

  • P

    “One reason New York is losing its New York edge may be that the city’s revival is partly based on a strange reversal: the city is the new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned years ago for lawns and better public schools. They’ve brought with them a love of cars”

    A point emphasized by a story in yesterday’s NY Times article on a new gated community in Brooklyn. The Post ran a glowing article on the development some time ago with the quote:

    “You get the closeness and ambience of Manhattan, but still have that suburban feel, that tranquility,” says Patrick Falleta, a funeral director who recently bought a three-bedroom in the complex.

    And, as he and Savelli both note, the tax abatements offered to Brooklyn buyers allow them to purchase suburban-style homes with property taxes that are a fraction of what they’d have to pay in parts of New Jersey or Long Island.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    P,

    The quote that struck me from that story about the gated community was this one, from Dorothy Turano, district manager of CB18:

    "We don’t have mixed uses here, and we don’t want them. We don’t think you should mix commercial and residential. It doesn’t work, not in Brooklyn. The boroughs, they’re more suburban and we want to keep it suburban."

  • JK

    The mayor needs to make a decision. There is a very strong consensus among divergent groups that the city’s traffic and transportation system is making the city less livable, less safe, less healthy, and less productive. The business elite, citizens groups, neighborhood groups, the newsmedia (and now Vogue)are telling the mayor loud and clear that it’s time for him to choose the “sustainable” traffic reduction approach that London, Paris and his own Sustainability staff advocate, and jettison the failed, out of date, car-first, approach of the NYC DOT.

    Maybe the mayor is right and congestion pricing is beyond his control in the state legislature. But the mayor is the boss of city streets and he is not getting the job done.

  • P

    Exactly, Sarah.

    Is there any place that mixed uses work better than in Brooklyn?

  • anon

    on another note, why are two-way streets more “pedestrian friendly” than one way streets? I’d rather cross a one-way street any day of the week.

  • I hear the same line all the time in CB8 Manhattan meetings. Some people talk about regular commercial uses (restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, barber shops, etc) as a taint in an otherwise “pure” residential area. And they wonder why we have so many delivery cyclists, fresh direct trucks and sterile blocks with nothing interesting on them.

    I live on E85th between First and Second. I couldn’t imagine a better street. We have a 2 large ped plazas opposite ends of the southside of the block. A small independent coffee shop (Rohr’s), an awesome sushi place (Poke), a cool Irish Bar (Ryan’s Daughter), a shoe repair shop, a kids dressy clothing store, an Italian restaurant (Ruggetta), a great brunch place with outdoor sidewalk seating and many buildings with stoops for people to sit out on. We also have a small one theater movie house around the corner. Mixed use is really another way of describing places that are people friendly, add convenience to accomplishing daily chores, support small and unique businesses and give a block a character.

  • anon,

    On two-way streets as a traffic-calming measure:

    • Single or double traffic lanes, either face-to-face or with a median, sometimes flanked by parking. The benefits:
    • Less driving, less confusion, and better traffic access
    • Eliminates the need to drive blocks and blocks out of the way
    • No need to make extra turns to get to nearby destinations
    • Drivers can get directly to their destination
    • Increases commercial traffic and business
    • Decreases the speed of traffic
  • JK,

    It would seem to me that Mayor Bloomberg has made his decision. He’s not going to deal with modernizing New York City’s public spaces and transportation policy. Rather, he’s going to focus on education, pension reform, gun control, smoking, fostering a real estate boom, revitalizing the waterfront, and quite a few other items. But not Livable Streets.

    Essentially, it seems to me that Bloomberg has decided that he is going to be the last Mayor of the 20th century rather than the first mayor of the 21st.

  • Steve

    I agree with Aaron, though you have to “compare apples to apples.” West 77th Street is more calm on its two-way stretch from CPW to Columbus (which accomodates two lanes of traffic) than its one-way stretch west of Columbus (which accomodates two lanes of traffic). Not surprisingly, West End Avenue and CPW (4 lanes each) are less calm than either.

  • P

    Aaron, I think there is needs to be a distinction about the quality of the pedestrian experience on a two-way street as you are describing it and Anon’s point that it is more difficult to cross a two way street.

    The city has recently converted portions of Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn to a one-way street. It is likely that many of the problems that you identify will occur (in fact, increasing traffic speeds was probably the intention of the DOT). However, elimination of eastbound traffic has made crossing the street easier for those of us too impatient to wait on the traffic light.

  • Yeah, I don’t know that two-way is ALWAYS more calm or better for peds. But it is generally seen that way in traffic calming orthodoxy.

  • CommanderKeen

    The 2-way vs 1-way commercial strip is an interesting comparison. For example, Smith & Court Sts in Carroll Gardens versus 5th and 7th Avenues in Park Slope. The first two are one-way, the second two are 2-way. And yet both are pretty functional neighborhood streets. Does the 1-way versus 2-way make much of a difference?

  • P

    CommanderKeen-
    Good examples. Contrary to traffic calming conventional wisdom I’m not sure that 7th and 5th are better pedestrian streets. Of course there are other factors to consider (namely traffic volume and speeds).

    I would, however, rather jaywalk across Smith and Court… Perhaps that could give businesses on those one way streets an advantage. (Not that I actually believe that any able-bodied person refuses to shop on the west side of 7th Avenue simply because there are two lanes of traffic separating them from the east side.)

  • ddartley

    Consider using the Times website to e-mail the article (don’t just forward copies), to get it in the top ten “most e-mailed.”

  • Ben

    Re: ease of crossing one-way vs two-way streets –

    I agree that there are plenty of great pedestrian streets with one-way traffic. however, the bullet points Aaron cited point to systemwide effects that detract from the overall pedestrian experience. The more one-way streets there are in the grid, for instance, the more turns cars have to make, and the more potential for vehicle-pedestrian conflict.

    Also, one-way avenues make surface transit less convenient for people — there’s a great section in Death and Life of Great American Cities about the relationship between converting streets to one-way flow and declining bus ridership.

  • 5th Ave., 7th Ave., Smith and Court are all great streets.

    Smith is only one lane and I think Smith and Court are narrower than both 7th and 5th. Are their sidewalks wider too?

    Certainly the uses, destinations and “mental speed bumps” of the streets play a large factor in their walkability along with many other factors that DOT and DCP have not yet begun to consider in their pedestrian level-of-service calculations.

  • Re: Times — Most Emailed.

    It’s currently #20

    See http://www.nytimes.com/gst/mostemailed.html

  • P

    …and dropping. It was 19 earlier today.

  • d

    Robert Sullivan is not that unexpected, actually he’s studied a lot about NYC streets, just from a slightly different perspective in the past. http://www.powells.com/authors/sullivan.html

  • JK

    Aaron,

    You shamelessly appropriated my usual line about Bloomberg priorities. Yes it is clear that “livable streets” are not his priority, and that he is not the next Ken Livingstone. But who can say how the Sustainability effort will play out? Maybe City Hall is unleashing a little genie is will have trouble stuffing back in the bottle.

    Bloomberg just needs to step out of the way, or expend a very small amount of political capital and we could see a car-free Central Park, car-free space in Times Square,car-free experiments in lower Manhattan retail areas, and a host of neighborhood bike/ped improvements.

    These might be modest steps compared to the dramatic moves in London and Paris. They might be small consolation given the city’s utter failure to deal with the huge increases in off-street parking, truck traffic and traffic congestion. Yet, they are still changes that would mean a great deal.

  • Here in Toronto we continually prostrate ourselves to be “more like New York,” or pat ourselves on the back when something we do gets noticed in the big ample. We love it that the “Toronto Coroner’s Rule,” for example, is touted by transportation activists in your city as a progressive act to follow (never mind that the “rule” exists in theory only).

    So we are saddened to read in the New York Times that the most basic definition of our human-ness, the ability to locomote on two feet, is being dimmed to dross in the city we admire so much. Sadly, we fear the repercussions: as Toronto’s decision-makers learn of the replacement of New York’s logo, from “I (heart) NY” to “I (car) NY,” what mischief is to follow in our own fair city?

    As always, we hold out faith that the car advertisement, that insidious leakage that pays the salaries of so many hacks and media clowns, will one day be seen for what it is, and be rejected. That, we believe, will be the start of a sea-change to ring the death-knell of car-culture at last.

    It cannot come too soon.

    See also http://allderdice.ca/?p=176 for the ALLDERBLOB on Robert Sullivan’s op-ed.

  • And here I thought no one in NY actually drove anywhere to begin with. 😉

    It seems as though there is a push in several cities such as Louisville, KY (where I currently live) to make the city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Unfortunately, these things take time and there is a lot of wealthy opposition to them even though it improves the quality of the city over the long haul. Some people with deep pockets will fight change no matter what it is even if it ultimately benefits the majority. Politicians are “owned” by these folks. I’m sure NY is no different in that aspect.

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