Jan Gehl: Gridlocked Streets Are “Not a Law of Nature”

It could have been just another gathering of urban idealists, agreeing with each other about how great it would be to have more public space for people, and less for cars.

Except last night’s NYC Streets Renaissance event, "A New Vision for the Upper West Side," featured renowned Danish planner Jan Gehl — who, as has been mentioned a time or two on Streetsblog, has been hired by the city to help bring to life the long-held wishes of New Yorkers who want their streets to be welcoming communal destinations, or, at least, something more than loud, dirty, traffic-choked motoring facilities.

After introductions by Transportation Alternatives’ Paul Steely White, The Open Planning Project’s Mark Gorton and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Gehl joked that he was not yet at liberty to discuss his analysis of New York City streets, specific recommendations or much of anything else. Despite the warning, he teased the capacity crowd at the Jewish Community Center with vignettes of what the city could look like in the near and not-too-distant future. Ten years from now, Gehl said, New York could compete with Copenhagen, where nearly 40 percent of commuters travel by bike, for the crown of world’s bike-friendliest city.

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Whereas pedestrians now spend up to 25 percent of their walking time waiting on signal changes, Gehl sees a city where a presently accepted nod to auto supremacy like the button-activated walk light ("an application to cross the street," as he calls it) becomes an outmoded relic. Gehl’s New York is one of flourishing street trees, attractive and functional street furniture, dedicated bus lanes, local outdoor art, complementary lighting, relaxed pedestrians and so many cyclists that the city will need to widen bike lanes to make room.

Specifically, Gehl looks to have big plans in the works for Broadway between Columbus Circle and the Battery. He also spent a bit of time discussing Fordham Road in the Bronx and Main Street in Flushing, noting that pedestrian volumes on these beleaguered outer borough thoroughfares are comparable to Times Square and some of the world’s busiest urban promenades.

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Gehl said his team was excited by New York City’s wide streets and avenues, as they provide the space to easily accommodate wider sidewalks and new kinds of bus and bike lanes. The key, he said, is supply and demand; while cars will fill whatever space you give them, on-street or off, reducing auto capacity by even a small percentage would make a big difference to other users.

According to Gehl, the top priority for any city looking to humanize its infrastructure is to change the way citizens view the purpose and function of the city itself.

"New York has become very much a ‘How to get from A to B’ city," Gehl said. "It is not a law of nature that you have this much traffic."

Photos: Jonathan Barkey 

  • momos

    This was such a great event. Thanks to the OPP and Trans Alt for organizing it.

    I asked Jan Gehl afterwards to compare his experience in NYC to the other cities he’s worked in. He was hugely positive. He said NYC has a far more active civic culture. He couldn’t believe the number of civic groups and organizations (read: NYC Streets Renaissance, Transportation Alternatives, TimesUP!, RPA, Tri-State Campaign, MAS, etc) that exist in the city. He was impressed by the enlightenment of philanthropists and the New York business community (it’s private donations that are paying for his consulting work to the city). To my surprise, he also said the political leadership of the city is far more forward-looking and progressive than their counterparts in London. London’s progress, in his opinion, is a result of one figure — Ken Livingstone — and the unique catalyzing effect of the 2012 Olympics.

    All in all, he was very enthusiastic about NYC. He said how welcome he felt, how receptive the city was to his ideas, how impressed he was that the city’s politicians are determined to get the ball rolling before Bloomberg’s tenure is up.

    Mark Gorton, Paul Steely White and Janette Sadik-Khan, in addition to thousands of citizen volunteers, deserve a lot of credit for turning around the city’s transportation policies.

  • Davis

    This is clearly beating a dead horse but can you even imagine Iris Weinshall up on that stage last night? Thank goodness she is out of the picture and, man, it has got to be one of the most unfortunate happenstances of NYC politics that, thanks to the impossibility of unloading Chuck’s wife at the end of the Giuliani administration, we lost six years of potential DOT innovation to Iris. How might things be different today if Sadik-Khan had been in that office the whole time?

  • Larry Littlefield

    It would be hard, but it would be nice if they did something big with Broadway from Columbus Circle to 23rd. It is an extra southbound street in the north-south street grid, and has become a prominent retail street.

    South of 23rd Street, howeve, I wouldn’t call it extra. It’s part of a pair with Centre, Lafayette, 4th south of 14th Street.

    Perhaps the motor vehicle free aspect could shift to 5th Avenue to Washington Square park, and West Broadway south of there.

  • rhubarbpie

    Six comments in search of a theme, a couple of days later:

    1) Jan Gehl’s presentation, though truncated (I wish we had been able to have a more leisurely trip through his slides), was fascinating, amusing and exciting. If we achieve some or all of what he has done in other cities, it’d be a major transformation.

    2) I do wish that Gehl had been able to talk a bit more about his thoughts about the Upper West Side, if he’s gotten that far.

    3) The crowd was almost exclusively white and didn’t reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, particularly in the 100s. I hope there is smart thinking going on about how to do outreach to the Hispanic and poorer communities along Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.

    4) That said, I would have liked the opportunity for a bit of give-and-take, with a possibility of getting some ideas or even a bit of feedback from the Upper West Siders in attendance.

    While I imagine that there will some chance for that, I also am extremely familiar with the “Here are all the good things we’ll be doing for you” approach that many in government (and worthy advocacy groups) take when they come to a community. Sometimes they are right, but without real input and the development of real support from the community things can blow up pretty fast.

    And we already know that, in spite of low car ownership in New York, every neighbor has plenty of people whose motto is “Give me my car or give me death!” So you want to build consensus and support, not expect it as a matter of course. (See “Congestion pricing, 2007).

    5) While I think it’s good that Transportation Alternatives volunteers have helped Gehl with his surveys, I do wonder about whether he is getting enough city resources.

    It’s clear that the commitment is there from DOT Commissioner Sadik-Kahn. But I recall a friend of mine who works for City Planning telling me that every last hand there was devoted to surveying the so-called Far West Side when Mayor Bloomberg was pushing for a stadium there. Can that resource or other resources be tapped, or have they been? What kind of commitment to these programs is there in city government (not the council) beyond the commissioner and perhaps the mayor?

    6) One selling point for less traffic, etc. that I hope advocates and the government will think about is how traffic delays emergency vehicles.

    Almost every time I am in Midtown, I watch as automobiles, trucks, buses and pedestrians do little or anything to get out of the way of ambulances or fire trucks. It’s astounding and must add valuable seconds or minutes to each call.

    (Two weeks ago, near Macy’s, I actually started walking into the intersection of 6th Avenue & 32nd to try to hold north-bound vehicles there so a fire truck could get through on its way east. By that time, luckily, the fire truck was able to get through, but only after much delay along 32nd Street.)

    The delays or extra time can be quantified, and I do recall some information years ago about the difference between Seattle emergency response times and New York City response times, possibly relating it to heart attack survival rates.

    Has there been an improvement in response times in Melbourne and other cities? (I do know that many emergency outfits hate speed bumps, but obviously what Gehl has done goes well beyond that.) Can the city show that?

    This won’t convince the “cars-first” crowd, but I think it should be added to the mix of arguments in favor of traffic calming, etc. I hope Gehl and the city include that in future presentations, if possible.

  • Paul Diczok

    “3) The crowd was almost exclusively white and didn’t reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, particularly in the 100s. I hope there is smart thinking going on about how to do outreach to the Hispanic and poorer communities along Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.”

    Re the above:

    Some of the WORST congestion conditions I have seen occur in upper Manhattan (Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights) on Boradway and on ALL the local access streets to the GWB. These vibrant neighborhoods must be part of the solution.

  • Jonathan

    Paul, sometimes it seems to me that the authorities assume that it’s not really congestion if it happens north of 96th St. Where is the CP plan for us?

  • Hilary

    You’re right. Congestion in the CBD is regarded as a critical economic loss for the city. Elsewhere it’s just an issue of public health or regional economics (e.g, through freight).

  • I interviewed Jan Gehl a few years ago at the first Walk21 conference in London. You can see it on Episode 44 of “Perils For Pedestrians” on google video.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2755806460769521444

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