Jan Gehl: New York Could Have World’s Best Streets

When DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, together with consultant and Danish urban planner Jan Gehl,  introduced the new "World Class Streets" doc [PDF] to a crowd of over 300 last Thursday evening at the Center for Architecture, the event seemed equal parts town hall meeting and celebrity book launch.

wcs1.jpgBuilding upon PlaNYC and DOT’s Sustainable Streets, World Class Streets focuses on improving the public realm by concentrating on plazas, complete street design, and Summer Streets-style pedestrian and cycling events. Together these measures aim to transform New York streets into "an environment that is enjoyable as well as functional" for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users of all ages.

For the report, Gehl Architects and DOT conducted a "Public Life Survey," gathering a wealth of data that identifies overcrowded sidewalks, streets without seats, excessive scaffolding, isolated public spaces, and a low ratio of stationary activities as shortcomings to address. "Often the most crowded areas (such as sidewalks near subway stops and street corners) are the places where most obstacles exist," it observes, also noting that "a vastly disproportionate amount of space is allocated to parking cars than to public seating spaces." One telling example is Main Street in Flushing, Queens, where pedestrians outnumber vehicle passengers by a ratio of two to one, yet pedestrians must squeeze into less than one-third of the space.

Among other interesting tidbits in the report:

  • Stroget in Copenhagen has 444 cafe seats per 1,000 yards, vs. 15 on Broadway (p. 15).
  • Just six percent of pedestrians on Broadway are either under the age of 14 or over 65 (p. 31).
  • Sixty percent of storefronts in the Lower Manhattan survey area had closed metal gates on a Sunday at noon (p. 35).

Accusing city higher-ups since Robert Moses of asking only "how the cars can be really happy," Gehl said today’s DOT has finally recognized that streets should accommodate a multitude of uses. "New York has wonderful, wide streets compared to other places," he told the audience. Thanks to these relatively spacious streets as well as unique urban density, cultural vitality, parks, and waterways, he said, "New York can have the best streets in the world."

A new city street design manual — due out this winter — will set technical guidelines for DOT and all city agencies to implement the changes advocated by World Class Streets. Meanwhile there are miles of bike lanes to create, sidewalks to widen, pedestrian refuges to build, new bike racks to install, and recalcitrant drivers to educate.

  • JK

    Terrific, especially because it equates “World Class Streets” with “World Class Walking.” Along with attractive design, this thoughtful report establishes the rationale for lots of good things, including much needed sidewalk widenings. It is also not afraid to point to world class pedestrian streets in other world cities, something you would not have seen in a NYC DOT report a decade ago.

  • I’m glad to see them using Lyon as an example. I really think it’s a beautiful city with _great parks along its two rivers_. It’d be nice if we could have a little more of that. Here’s to a bright future for all of our cities.

  • It’d helpful if this report contained more hard data about safety; cold hard facts about how the number of pedestrian injuries and deaths in NYC compare to the numbers in other cities could go a long way towards convincing skeptics of the need for livable streets improvements.

  • J

    Josh,
    Part of the problem in New York is that we’ve only measured the success of our streets in terms of injury statistics and Level of Service. The point of the book is to introduce entirely new metrics to be used to measure our streets’ success. While safety statistics are important, these new metrics set the bar higher for our streets. We need to make our streets much more than locations where you’re unlikely to be killed or maimed; they should be inviting places for people to travel, interact, and live.

  • J,

    I absolutely understand where you’re coming from and agree with you completely, but you’re preaching to the choir in this case. If you want to make a convincing case to folks who read Commuter Outrage rather than to folks who read Streetsblog, facts about safety are far more likely to resonate with them than facts about the number of cafe tables per thousand yards of street. If you circumvent those people rather than attempting to communicate with them, they’ll be bitter, and understandably so.

    For that matter, I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t be focused on safety first before worrying about the amount of bike parking or the number of benches. Personally, I’d rather read my AM New York while standing than read it while sitting but have the article I’m reading be about some kid who got killed by an out-of-control SUV. I realize that that’s a false dichotomy, and that the two types of improvements aren’t mutually exclusive, but… to me, safety has to be the most important concern.

  • Moser

    NYC DOT provides the safety focus and some of the data you are looking for in another report from earlier this year – see

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/stratplan_safety.pdf

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