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New Film Fires up Faithful in Manhattan Debut

Like Al Gore, the idea of making New York safer for walkers and bicyclists commands more popular support than government action would suggest. Also like the former veep, the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign is using film to rally support. (The campaign has never struggled, though, to keep its weight under control.)

"Contested Streets," an hour-long documentary distilling the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign's argument, debuted last night at Manhattan's IFC Film Center to a standing-room crowd. The film spelled out how New York's deference to cars threatens its productivity -- and how lessons from European capitals can shore up its future. Al, are you listening?

Plenty of citizens listened carefully to the documentary's message. Speakers presented the history of the car's ascendancy, the end of its viability, and the ways it can become less dominant. Historian Mike Wallace reminded viewers that cars initially cleansed cities of horse poop and flies, but car-makers and their suppliers conspired to kill mass transit.

Generations later, the film shows, "pedlock" and fearsome trucks traps many New Yorkers. When Times Square Alliance chief Tim Tompkins tells the camera that 68% of area workers complained about congestion, his point lands like a punch in the stomach: a city's greatness depends on how joyfully people can use its public space.


"Contested Streets" takes the viewer to Copenhagen, Paris and London for a tour of fresh approaches to public life. Copenhagen incrementally rolled out bike-only lanes and pedestrian-only streets. Paris'
mayor steered investment in rapid bus service and replaced a highway with a riverside beach, London imposed a fee on cars in the central district. These measures' champions and the citizens who benefit from them all suggest ways New York can control cars' chokehold on street life.

When the film closed, viewers applauded and adjourned for a reception where several signed cards supporting Introduction 199, a bill before the City Council that would require the city's Department of Transportation to incorporate walking, biking and mass-transit wait times into its measures.

The bill would not require city officials to watch "Contested Streets," though some may do so on their own.

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