Times Shows Little Love for Livable Streets

Are you "a certain kind of urban idealist"? Chances are that if you read Streetsblog, the answer is yes. At least according to the New York Times.

This week, the Times covered three major livable streets initiatives, now either underway or under consideration by the city: its first step toward establishing a bike-share system, a pilot program to charge market rates for curbside parking, and the reclamation of street space for pedestrians and cyclists on Broadway. While the Times could have presented these projects as good news for the vast majority of New Yorkers who do not drive, the motorists, as usual, were allotted an inordinate amount of room.

Take the headline on today’s Broadway Boulevard piece*: "Closing on Broadway: Two Traffic Lanes." Why not "Opening on Broadway: More Sidewalk Space"? While the story itself makes the case for the need for more pedestrian areas, there is no resisting the oppositional dynamic of conventional daily journalism, epitomized in this passage:

Some workers in the area wondered whether people would flock to dine
and relax so close to a busy route’s speeding taxis, noisy trucks and
exhaust fumes.

“They’ll have carbon monoxide in their tuna
fish,” said Corey Baker, 31, who works at a fashion branding company at
Broadway and 41st Street.

Still, Mr. Baker said that the neighborhood would benefit from more open space and added that he might even use it.

This story also refers to the upcoming "banning cars on Park Avenue on three Saturdays in August." Again, why not the "opening of Park Avenue to walking and biking"?

In the peak rate parking story, the rationale behind the "congestion parking" program, once established, is rebutted with quotes from shop owners and drivers — the go-to for street management expertise — who are skeptical that it will work as intended. Neighborhood residents, who might like to see less honking, congestion and pollution caused by "people from out of the area" cruising for parking spots, are not quoted directly, but represented by community board chairs. That on-street parking space is the cheapest real estate in the city — a major reason why peak rate parking is both warranted and necessary — goes unmentioned.

Then there is the bike-share article, unremarkable save for two points, one being the lead paragraph:

The city took a tentative step this week toward fulfilling the dream of
a certain kind of urban idealist, saying that it will explore the
possibility of creating a bike-sharing program that could make hundreds
or even thousands of bicycles available for public use.

We don’t know what "a certain kind of urban idealist" is. Maybe it refers to anyone who would like to see their city become a little less dependent on, and therefore less dominated by, noisy, space-hogging, polluting, life-endangering cars and trucks. Point number two: Though this is a story about bike riding, not one "man-on-the-street" cyclist is quoted here. Of course, that would have necessitated an opposing viewpoint from the windshield perspective. Just to keep it fair.

* A tipster informs us that in one edition of the Times newspaper the headline for this article reads "2 Lanes to Close on Broadway, Making Way for Bikes and Lunch."

  • As people have been hearing me say for weeks now: the upcoming Summer Streets event on Park Avenue is being branded by the press as a negative. You can bet the media will be talking to lots of drivers and people inconvenienced by the closure.

    It strikes me as odd, after all when we have the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Gay Pride Parade, NYC Marathon, NY Giants parade down the Canyon of Heroes, etc. etc. – those are all major street closures and yet there is usually no mention by the media or coverage of how those things are effecting drivers.

    The media thrives on controversy of course and is always looking for the cheap angle to make people tune in. Sadly that is our world. But let’s hope we can remind the media to not ignore the incredible positive benefits the Summer Streets are bringing to the lives of people.

  • Some workers in the area wondered whether people would flock to dine and relax so close to a busy route’s speeding taxis, noisy trucks and exhaust fumes.

    Personally, I have the same thoughts. I can’t stand hanging out on a park bench or eating at an outdoor table on a busy, traffic-filled NYC street. I think it’s brutal. But Willie Neumman, how about a little reporting instead of just speculating?

    I happened to be at 9th Avenue and 14th Street last night around 8pm and, lo and behold, Meatpacking Plaza, the newly reclaimed pedestrian spaces at Gansevoort, and the sidewalks outside the restaurants on 9th Ave were jam-packed with people enjoying the outdoor space. You couldn’t find a seat if you wanted one.

    Meanwhile, the intersection itself was absolutely crammed with honking, spewing, hyper-aggressive motor vehicle traffic. A deeply sociopathic fellow in a Nissan Morono, NJ plates, natch, was trying to make a right turn from Ninth to 14th. He wasn’t happy about having to wait for the throng of pedestrians crossing 14th. So he was just sitting there in the climate controlled comfort of his new car leaning on his horn, absolutely demolishing the public realm within a 50 foot radius of his big, expensive vehicle. A conservative and respectable looking older woman jumped off the sidewalk and screamed into his windshield. Cocooned in his air conditioned bubble, he didn’t seem to notice or care.

    Moral of story: The demand for outdoor public space is so great in NYC, people seem to be entirely willing to subject themselves to the “noisy trucks and exhaust fumes.”

  • Ace

    And anyone who has ever walked from Macy’s to Times Square knows how jammed those sidewalks are. I end up in the street most of the time anyway. This is wonderful news for the vast majority of New Yorkers period.

  • Barnard

    Hey, if the Times doesn’t get it, at least the blog-o-sphere does:

    The Gothamist took the opportunity to run this quote from the Times story in bold:

    “I think we’ve got enough places for cars and not enough places for people to sit.”

    http://gothamist.com/2008/07/11/seven_blocks_of_broadway_to_narrow.php

  • One of the best ways to counter all this negative “balance” is to show up at Williaimsburg Walk starting on the 19th and Summer Streets starting on the 9th. You can bet the Times will be there to check the turnout, given all of the emphasis placed on the “trial” and “experimental” nature of these closings when they were first announced.

  • One of several offenses to good journalism in the Times’ parking story:

    In contrast, Hazel Styles, 28, a manager at Image, a clothing store, feared that higher rates would drive customers away.

    “With the price of gas, nobody wants to drive,” Ms. Styles said. “Bloomberg’s going to reduce traffic, but the majority of our customers come from out of the area.”

    Ms. Styles seems unaware that the majority of her customers arrive by public transit or walk to the store from their midtown office jobs. The Times does nothing to correct her, even though the stats — thoroughly aired during the congestion-pricing controversy — must still be fresh in reporters’ minds. How odd that the paper’s Manhattan reporters should employ such a shopping-mall mentality in their own backyard. Note the obligatory shot at Bloomberg, the liveable-streets mayor.

  • NY1 had a rather negative segment on DOT’s new “Broadway Boulevard” design this morning. They interviewed 3 people on the street, 2 motorists who oppose the plan and 1 pedestrian who supports it.

    The 2 motorists cited their own driving experience and acted like they were experts on the subject. Somehow, their limited experiences gave them more knowledge than all of the transportation professionals in the entire Department of Transportation.

    Umm…Just because you own and drive a car does not make you a traffic engineer.

  • d

    There are plenty of spaces next to “speeding taxis, noisy trucks and exhaust fumes.” The median on Broadway through the Upper West Side, the apartments that overlook FDR Drive, and the Brooklyn Promenade are just a few examples. Would the Times question the value that such spaces add to the city?

  • mike

    It would have been nice too if the Times gave some context to the project – like the sheer numbers of pedestrians in Times Square, and the Times Sq BID’s study that showed how many times pedestrians are forced into the street.

    As far as I’m concerned, just close that intersection to motor vehicles all together, with the exception of commercial traffic. It barely functions now as it is. Anybody who purposely drives through there deserves the misery they get. Unfortunately they spread that misery to pedestrians and bicyclists.

  • Reading the comments on the NYTimes is really scary to me. “What next, mule trains instead of trucks?” sounds like a guy who hasn’t ridden since he was a kid so he only think a bike can circle in the street in front of his house. Some of them talk about how this will create more pollution and congestion not understanding that coupled with more expensive parking (and a crack down on illegal parking, hopefully) that people will be encouraged to use alternative forms of transportation. The best critical comment was from an old arthritic lady who is scared about having to cross both bicycles and cars and is a good argument for sidewalk-bikelane-median-street-sidewalk configuration to make it easier for people to cross multiple traffic patterns with a break in between. I also don’t understand that notion that only tourists will use it. I know in Paris many of the locals used it (especially when their scooters were broken). Well, after reading about how almost all the tramways in France were dismantled post war only to be resurrected from 1990s onward… it’s a depressing realization that even if they do build a great pedestrian street on broadway, enough people complain and they will remove it. This is why GOOD advocacy by groups like Transportation Alternatives is really needed. I think the confrontational TimesUp! approach is sometimes needed… but not if you want to keep these changes and get people on our side.

  • Indeed, our paper makes the Washington Post’s coverage of DC’s human friendly initiatives (Related Articles, at top) look good. At least WP admits that such planning is unambiguously good for the city and its residents (even as they amplify the emotions of suburban car commuters).

    The Times, on the other hand, can not write about our streets without trotting out its lovable and tenacious NYC driver archetype who just can’t believe what crazy things the city will do next to make their motorized lives harder. Never mind that frequent self-drivers are an increasingly marginal portion of the city’s population, this tried and true skeptical counterbalance to every city-streets story is too good to pass up!

  • Shemp

    I think you guys are being a little touchy about the coverage, and would direct you to the chronically-jammed Greeley Square, which is wedged in between 6th Ave and Broadway and is SRO every spring/summer/fall day at lunch when it isn’t raining.

  • Jason A

    How can you defend the Broadway status quo when so many pedestrians are forced into walking in the street!?!? Who CARES about the cars when the sidewalks are stuffed to capacity!

    I’ve always believed there should be some sort of planning metric that automatically converts traffic lanes into sidewalks once X number of feet start walking among the cars. This is exactly what the DOT is doing. Horay!

  • Gwin

    Jason: I saw that segment on NY1 and had the exact same reaction!

    At least Pat Kiernan pointed out to the reporter afterwards that most of the car traffic seems to head down 7th rather than Broadway.

  • I love the planning metric idea for conversion of street to pedestrian thoroughfare. If ever there were a street ripe for pedestrianization, it is Prince Street in SoHo. Sadly, the last time pedestrianization was proposed, the SoHo Alliance got up in arms about it. I guess they’d rather have the cars than the people, sadly.

  • Jacob

    That planning metric could easily be used on 8th Ave around the Port Authority Bus Terminal. There are fences designed to keep pedestrians on the sidewalk, but people just opt to walk on the street side of the fence instead. It’s an absolute madhouse there from 5-7pm.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    So given the Times, Daily News, Post, and WSJ obvious bias against livable streets issues why are they given so much credibility when they bash the MTA, its management and its workers?

  • AP

    So the sidewalk on Broadway is completely jammed and people spill over into the street. Why do people think this bike lane next to the sidewalks is going to work here? You got a hundred pedestrians for every biker, you got people stuffed on the sidewalk and there’s this open strip of pavement for bikes right there. You think this is going to stay open for bikers? Anyway, why should the bikers get this space when walkers are stuffed?

  • AP, you’re absolutely right.

    Let’s completely remove the privilege of driving – or the privilege of being stuck in traffic – from the motor vehicles that use Broadway.

    Instead, we can dedicate all that newly-freed space to the pedestrians, save for a slim, 6′ bike lane (or maybe 10′ – 5′ in each direction). And I’d further vote to help out those pedestrians that are trying to get somewhere by adding a trolley line, say, from Columbus Circle to Union Sq.

    Great thinking, AP.

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