DOT Launches Gehl Street Survey Project

The New York City Department of Transportation has retained Danish urbanist Jan Gehl’s firm to evaluate city streets and other public spaces.

Streetsblog first reported this development as a possibility back in June, when we interviewed Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Not long after, we got word that Gehl had been hired by the city as a PlaNYC consultant.

DOT is now looking for volunteers to help with Gehl’s survey. Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail circulated to city planning student lists, courtesy a Streetsblog tipster:

They will need about 20 volunteers to do shifts on Sept. 26th, 27th and 29th for their public life survey, which is essentially a collection of data on people and activities taking place in a given public space. Pedestrian counts, age & gender of users, stationary activities and other kinds of public activity will be evaluated. We may also be looking at the quality of pedestrian conditions, seating opportunities, pavement, lighting, signage and quality of ground floor facades, which are all variables that directly affect how the public space is being used and inhabited.

Sites will be major pedestrian and commercial corridors in Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Gehl has also been recruited to study pedestrian conditions in Sydney, Australia, which has not duplicated the success of neighboring Melbourne in reclaiming public space from the automobile. Gehl talked to the Sydney Morning Herald about how infrastructure "harassments" lead pedestrians to break the law.

The worst is Market Street, where pedestrians who obey traffic signals spend half their time waiting for the signals to turn green, his research team found.

"You have a number of built-in harassments," Professor Gehl said.

One is his pet hate, the traffic button that walkers must push to "apply" to cross the road. Another is the cluttering of the streetscape by large phone booths and bus stops that accommodate large advertising signs.

"The worse you treat people, the more they start to take the law into their own hands," Professor Gehl said.

Photo: Aaron Naparstek, Sept. 28, 2006. Jan Gehl leading a boat tour of the Copenhagen waterfront.

  • greg

    i wonder if he’ll only be focusing on manhattan..or will the entire city be evaluated..this is promising news

  • bill

    eh.. did you read it, greg?
    “Sites will be major pedestrian and commercial corridors in Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

  • “The worse you treat people, the more they start to take the law into their own hands,” Professor Gehl said.
    That’s as good an explanation as any why people who are upstanding citizens in so many walks of life behave as they do when walking or bicycling.

    No law requires that roads be planned, designed or built with bicyclists or pedestrian in mind; no law requires that localities, when they set speed limits or configure traffic signal operations, consider the needs of people who walk or bicycle; the criminal justice system gives sober motorists virtual carte blanche to kill at-will people who walk or bicycle.

    And then society complains when we roll through a stop sign??!!

  • Spud Spudly

    It almost sounds like he thinks he’s going to stop people from jaywalking. Someone needs to explain some NY fundamentals to him.

  • Smith

    Get all of the cars off of a street and voila, no more jay-walking.

    I hope he suggests a car-free Prince Street, at least on weekends, and a car-free Broadway between Union and Madison Squares. I

  • Dan Icolari

    Perhaps Ms. Sadik-Kahn and Mr. Gehl haven’t been informed that there is a fifth New York City borough–it’s called Staten Island–that has at least one small commercial sector that desperately needs rethinking, redesign and reorientation.

    What makes this sector especially worth considering is that it’s smack in the middle of an area undergoing substantial revitalization, with significant private as well as public investment. A new county courthouse facility is moving toward construction just around the corner. Three large residential condominium projects are in the works, two 2 blocks away, one 3 blocks away; with others planned, promising to produce a population increase that will overwhelm an already dysfunctional commercial street.

    That sector is located within the small commercial/business/government center that is Staten Island’s downtown, directly west of the ferry terminal in St. George. The majority of the activity is centered in one narrow, two-block-long street–Stuyvesant Place– that is home to two large court buildings, one large commercial building, two small commercial buildings, two apartment houses, and a collection of restaurants, bodegas, hair and nail salons, a dry cleaner, and a commercial bank.

    The street is bordered on the north by a narrow and steeply hilly street, which makes truck deliveries a nightmare; and at the southern end by the same narrow triangle that has dispersed traffic since Borough Hall was erected in the first decade of the 20th century. The street is also the location where criminal suspects are delivered for trial in the Supreme Court building via a large prison bus–another traffic nightmare.

    If ever a commercial street needed rethinking, redesign and reorientation, this is the one. Too bad it’s in the borough whose existence the ostensibly newly progressive DOT–like its earlier incarnation–appears unable to recall.

  • momos

    Dan Icolari – I totally agree. Staten Island is consistently overlooked among all the forward-looking planning going on in NYC. St. George, as you said, cries out for attention. It has tremendous potential along with its dysfunction.

  • Mike P

    Does anyone know how to get involved in the DOT’s volunteer survey for Gehl?

  • bill

    but see that’s just the problem, Dan and momos – staten island ISN’T crying out for attention. where are the community groups asking for progressive interventions? where are the electeds asking for these kinds of things? most of what you hear SI asking for is less tolls, more parking, and more street capacity. get some grassroots going before you blame DOT for being deaf. government responds to the people.

  • Dan Icolari

    Bill, I mentioned St. George, not the entire borough of Staten Island, as one community needing the kind of attention and investigation the other boroughs deserve and are getting. My hope is that such investigation might lead to recommendations that the community, as represented by the St. George Civic Association, might be able to consider and perhaps press for implementation.

    You don’t have to tell St. George to “get some grassroots going.” Our civic association has a 30-year record of accomplishment, including the first historic district in the borough, representing a decade-long effort; rezoning that reflects actual use rather than highest and best use, the development of arts programs in the local elementary school; co-sponsorship of the borough’s only greenmarket, and more.

    At the moment, community leaders are trying to cope with tremendous residential development pressure, walking the line between encouraging such development and keeping it at a humane scale–and real estate speculation, with absentee investors snatching up even one-family houses that could easily be purchased by owner occupants–often with very negative impacts on individual blocks.

    Rather than wait until it’s too late to do anything–that is, after development already narrows what is possible or practical–DOT should be taking the lead here in recommending reforms that can accommodate the significant population increases we’re about to absorb with very little commercial infrastructure and continued reliance on private transportation in the one Staten Island community that is well served by public transit.

    Is it that the other boroughs are crying out for DOT’s help, Bill, and Staten Island is not? Or is it simply that it’s easier to paint the entire borough of Staten Island as a single-minded monolith that spurns any attempt at reform, per your rather dismissive (and, where St. George is concerned, inaccurate) post?

    This is a very old story and once again, it’s the latter. Here’s the message: DOT needs to look at ways to build on what is already a fairly walkable neighborhoodd–St. George, that is–by reconsidering vehicular and pedestrian circulation and how they can be improved to accommodate the commercial and residential development planned and in the works.

  • bill

    wasn’t trying to generalize or dismiss SI. my point was just that the community needs to at least float some ideas publicly, to give cover to the city to propose bold things. that’s all.

  • Demos

    St George is deserving, but so far are a lot of other places. NYC is huge and St George is pretty tiny. You have to start somewhere. DOT is grossly understaffed and underbudget to take on a comprehensive citywide transportation/landuse renaissance. What portion of all pedestrian traffic in NYC will the Gehl surveyors encounter in their work? Not many. Still you have to start somewhere.


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