Ten years ago today, Aaron Naparstek hit “publish” on the first official Streetsblog post.
“The $46 Million Parking Perk” was an exposé of the city’s parking placard system based on the work of analyst Bruce Schaller. I don’t have a screengrab of the story as it appeared that day, but here’s a look at the banner readers saw when they punched streetsblog.org into their browsers on June 16, 2006. (In those early days, Streetsblog and Streetfilms were the media arm of the New York City Streets Renaissance, a multi-pronged advocacy campaign to upend the cars-first status quo at, primarily, NYC DOT.)
Aaron and Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton started the site out of a sense of both frustration and optimism. Frustration at the inertia inside a city government that still viewed streets’ primary purpose as moving and storing motor vehicles. Optimism about the future of city streets and the capability of online media to change public policy for the better. Together with videomaker Clarence Eckerson and his fledgling Streetfilms operation, they set out to shake things up.
To honor Mark and Aaron and to celebrate all the progress we’ve made since they brought their brainchild into the world, Streetsblog and Streetfilms will be putting on a big 10-year anniversary benefit on November 14 at Current, right off the Hudson River Greenway at 18th Street. Save the date, mark your calendars, and watch this space — we’ll keep you posted on the event as we firm up the details.
If you have a minute, go back and read that first story about parking placards. Even that proto-post bore the hallmarks of the Streetsblog strategy. It turned transportation wonkery — the value of parking spaces and the effect of free parking on commute habits — into breezy prose that anyone could latch onto. With a whiff of corruption in the headline, it caught the attention of the tabloids, which picked up the story. And it got under the skin of people in government (in this case, the fellows over at NYPD Rant).
The steady drumbeat of placard coverage also prompted a response from City Hall, which cut back on the number of placards issued. Sure, in 2016, we’re still fighting the placard scourge. But take a moment to think back on how different New York City streets were 10 years ago.
There were no on-street protected bike lanes, no plazas in Corona or Jackson Heights or New Lots, no pedestrian safety plan, no speed enforcement cameras. Not a single bus route in the city allowed passengers to save time by paying before boarding. Hundreds of thousands of people walking through Times Square every day were shunted off to the margins of the street, hemmed in by a motoring armada. New Yorkers made about 200,000 fewer trips by bicycle each day. And about 90 more people lost their lives in traffic each year.
The most-watched Streetfilm of all time (more than half a million views!) tells the story well:
It took a small army of advocates, volunteers, and public servants to attain all the progress we’ve made since then. And it’s safe to say we wouldn’t have come this far without Streetsblog and Streetfilms.
Before Streetsblog, local press coverage seldom conveyed the expectation that the city’s streets could change. Dangerous streets, crushing congestion, and slow buses were immutable facts of New York City life. Bicycling was, more often than not, an object of derision.
Mark, Aaron, and Clarence did shake things up. By showing what is possible for city streets, watchdogging city agencies, getting public officials on the record, and creating a forum where people could discuss how to make streets better, Streetsblog and Streetfilms expanded what was thought to be achievable and accelerated the pace of change. The model that they originated proved effective and durable.
Clarence’s videos allowed people’s imaginations to soar. If you saw a great pedestrian street or a safe bikeway in a Streetfilm, you could picture the same thing in your hometown. With Streetfilms, advocates around the country could show their mayors scenes of car-free Sundays in Bogotá or the low-stress bike network in Copenhagen. It’s not a coincidence that Clarence’s Ciclovia Streetfilm preceded the wave of open streets events around the U.S.:
The Streetsblog model of a daily streets and transportation beat, meanwhile, has expanded to cities from coast to coast. Streetsblog reporters are keeping the pressure on public officials to make good on their promises to improve walking, biking, and transit. And readers around the country follow our national coverage of success stories, emerging trends, all the ways we’ve screwed up our streets, and all the ways people are working to transform their streets for the better.
Our job is far from over. Ten years from now, we intend to have many more victories to celebrate, and thanks to the support of our readers and philanthropic partners, we’re in a great position to deliver. Later this summer, we plan to go live with the first redesign of Streetsblog in eight years, modernizing the look, feel, and functionality of the site.
Personally, I still remember the thrill when Aaron brought me on as a reporter in 2008. Working at Streetsblog, producing media that reshapes streets in a way that improves people’s daily lives, teaming up with our talented journalists, writing for an informed, impassioned audience — it never ceases to be rewarding, and I’ll always be grateful to Mark and Aaron for the opportunity. I hope you’ll join me on November 14 to recognize their contributions to New York City and beyond.