Evaluating Summer Streets

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"If only this street were completely jam-packed, I’d be having so much fun!!!"

It’s too soon to evaluate this year’s Summer Streets events, but I’ve noticed that the recent car-free days on Montague Street and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn have been catching a bit of flack on Curbed and various other blogs for "not packing them in." On Saturday, the Brooklyn 11211 blog wrote that Williamsburg’s main drag "lacked that manic aspect that Bedford often gets on the weekends." Curbed seemed to interpret that as failure. Last week, a Brooklyn Heights blogger snapped a photo of Montague Street around 3 pm with a light rain falling (on July 4th weekend, with the half of the neighborhood out of town) and sarcastically headlined the item, "Crowds Throng Montague." Brownstoner picked up on the photo and spread news of the "underwhelming" event.

Forgetting the fact that photos taken earlier in the day on Montague showed a pretty lovely and well-attended scene, what’s with this idea that for a Summer Streets event to be considered successful, it needs to attract a "throng?" Jamming large crowds into small spaces has never been a big challenge in this town. The whole idea of Summer Streets, as I understand it, is to give New Yorkers a bit of room to breathe and space to walk, bike, play or simply sit down and relax. You want a throng? Try Midtown.

Here’s a modest proposal for evaluating the success of a Summer Streets event…

Measure the amount of time kids are able to run and play without their parents having to worry about them being hit by a car, the number of friends you bump into and new people you meet, the pounds of automobile exhaust and carbon that are not spewed into the hot summer air, the volume of horn-honking, engine-revving and boom stereos you’re not hearing, and whether local merchants are happy about the event and making more money than they usually do on a slow summer weekend.

And if there’s a "throng" or the event is "packing them in" — that’s probably a sign of over-success. It means that it’s time to expand your Summer Street by a few blocks, a few hours or another day.

Photo: Bedford Avenue last Saturday by Brooklyn 11211

  • The best things in NYC are not where you are in huge crowds – that’s an everyday occurance. The real treats from the everyday hustle and bustle of the city are empty space, quietness, conversations at normal tones and hearing laughter and bird chirping.

    Don’t we want to have a city that you don’t feel you need to “escape from” every weekend? Don’t we want neighborhoods that make people want to rest and relax on the weekend to recharge for the return of the hustle and bustle on Monday?

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    On the other hand, there is an attendance threshold beneath which it just doesn’t feel like something is happening. I used to work in a hotel and we would re-configure the dining room so that it was three-quarters full. We wanted guests to feel like they had some elbow room and privacy but weren’t adrift. I think a similar principle applies here.

  • m-o

    the best thing about Bedford Avenue on Saturday was that there were way more people than usual, but there was also way more room than usual.

    no more sharp elbows on the sidewalks, no more crowded corners.

    just a relaxed, awesome street to hang out on. i went there for lunch and stayed till dinner.

  • You totally know that if a zillion people showed up, the same blogs would be complaining that there wasn’t enough space to enjoy it and that it attracted people from outside the ‘hood and the “regulars”.

    *shrug* Everyone wants to complain. Just ask me about this heat wave.

  • d

    Couldn’t it also be measured by how the businesses fared on that day? If local business owners report sales at or above days when cars are allowed on the street, then the event would clearly be seen as a success regardless of the amount of elbow room on the street.

  • Max Rockatansky

    The blogs didn’t seem to be too negative, only Curbed had really psychotic comments – but even there, many people seemed supportive. Overall it’s got to be a big win, it can’t have any substantial cost and traffic delays on a summer weekend have to be minimal. Plus everyone gets to enjoy a little more space. The StreetFilm is great, makes me want to get out there. Actually it makes me wish that my neighborhood had Summer Streets.

  • Moser

    I think part of the problem is that everyone wants to think of it as an “event” and it’s not. It’s a different use of the street.

  • GAPCo

    Have any of the montague or bedford merchants been asked whether their business has been affected? I have not seen it in any blog or article anywhere….but that is the yardstick that this should be measured by – if the merchants make more (or less) money, this exercise will be repeated next summer (or not). If it is repeated next summer, then it becomes an institution.

  • Timmy

    Interesting analysis Aaron. When you talk about your own neighborhood you state that it is great to have extra room to walk down the street and we should celebrate the space. However, if a resident of Soho complains that the closure of Prince Street will bring more tourists and crowds they are labeled as “Xenophobic”. I guess one set of rules applies to the places where Streetbloggers live and another applies to “Xenophobic” people who live on Prince Street.

  • P

    Of course, the streets only look occupied when traffic is allowed. Even during a traffic jam there would never be more than 20 people in their cars on any given block.

    Maybe critics would be satisfied if that little boy were wrapped in several tons of steel…

  • Joan

    Maybe the pedestrians stayed away because of all the bicyclists. Who wants to worry about getting hit by a bike?

  • It was also wicked hot out this weekend. I would of gone and hung out, but not when it was 97 degrees. Hell you couldn’t get me to free ice cream if it was 97 degrees.

  • Archie George Bunker Jefferson

    The Police Athletic League has been doing this on hundreds of city streets for over 40 years (probably way longer than that). The fire department will provide sprinkler caps and open up a fire hydrant for any person who will walk into a firehouse and simply ask.

    These things aren’t new in New York. Millions of city kids have been able to enjoy a stickball game or a game of basketball on the streets for years.

  • Archie George Bunker Jefferson

    P.S. That picture of the kid running through the hydrant, having a great time and being a kid is what makes programs like Summer Streets worth it. Much better than having a bunch of Lance Armstrongs being a public menace, riding though the streets like they own them, and putting that kid’s life in danger

  • Streetsman

    Timmy the point is that pedestrianized streets do not create the crowds that alarmists in Soho proclaim they will. There is no double standard, only the misinformation that was spread prior to DOT’s presentation.

    Bedford Avenue is a residential and retail corridor comparable to Prince Street in that it draws visitors to the area, and the sidewalks are too narrow to accommodate the high pedestrian traffic. There are also lots of street vendors. Yet I didn’t see any of the following plagues that were predicted if Prince Street were closed to traffic:

    -a row of unregulated vendors down the middle of the street
    -noisy street performers entertaining tourists
    -food vendors
    -jugglers and mimes
    -honking drivers
    -traffic congestion and pollution
    -accidents between pedestrians and cyclists
    -anything even closely resembling the Santa Monica Boardwalk or the San Gennaro Festival.

    (http://www.streetsblog.org/2008/03/07/soho-partnership-dot-propose-car-free-sundays-on-prince-st/)

    You could do this exact same treatment on Prince Street and get the same results – a pleasant space to walk and gather without cars.

  • Palomine

    PAL Plays Streets are great, but they are on residential side-streets. Summer Streets is like Play Streets on big, retail streets. Same idea but bigger and with stores.

    We’ll see what happens on Park Ave between little kids and people on bikes.

  • Bob

    P – great point. Need to break out that classic street photo of the spatial equivalent of people walking, on a bus and driving..

  • gecko

    Classic picture!

  • Jeff Prant

    It’s one of the ironies of evaluating car-free streets- if there are 25 people impatiently passing through a city block in cars (which would amount to roughly 20 cars), we would call it “congested”. If that same block is car-free for a day and there are 25 people thoroughly enjoying the experience of being on the street, we call it “underutilized”.

    And in years past, the congestion on the street with 20 cars would have been used as justification for removing stoops, narrowing sidewalks, and expanding the roadbed!

  • m-o

    Joan – I can say from my perspective, having spent most of the day at Williamsburg Walks, that the cyclists on bedford avenue were very casually cruising through the area. I saw zero conflicts – which is not to say that there were none. Just not ones that I saw during my five or six hours on the street.

  • Brian

    The “problem” I saw at the Williamsburg Walk this past weekend wasn’t that the level of pedestrian traffic, but that the space that was designated for pedestrians wasn’t really utilized as well as it could have been. This made the reclaimed street space appear dead and unutilized, which was probably why most people chose to walk on the sidewalk.

  • Curbed can be disregarded out of hand. The percentage of people who make intelligent comments on that site is in the single digits.

  • Pursuant

    It’s perfectly fair to judge the open street on attendance. The rights of those who want to use the street for driving need to be weighed against those who want to simply sit outside on them. As I saw it people weren’t really out for a variety of reasons and the street was too hot to really enjoy it.

    Perhaps a Fall rollout when the streets are cooler could bring this into a better light and not let people dismiss the event as easily as they are right now.

  • I am glad you posted a discussion for this Aaron, and of course just so many well thought comments – sure some I disagree with – but good comments as usual.

    I will say this: I was out there for over 4 hours+ shooting video, talking to folks and hanging out. I felt like my skin was melting and even though I drank 8 bottles of water when I got home I was obviously dehydrated. When I was riding over I expected a ghost town with scorching heat like that. So the fact that so many people were out in the streets was great. AND the streets were QUIET since there was no honking, no loud trucks (not many have mentioned that as a benefit) and the air was CLEANER.

    I think the weather is supposed to be great Saturday. And it will be the second event, I am sure there will be many more folks out.

  • Having been on Montague two Sundays in a row, my impression is that there were easily more New Yorkers satisfying their ‘rights’ to enjoy the public space than in its normal configuration, where an automobile is required. As for Lance Armstrong, I didn’t see him or the stereotype he is intended to invoke. A block with french barriers on each end could not be very good for training (I guess), but as I experienced it was very nice for riding at a walking pace, or half again as fast. Children were out, frolicking in the absence of the mortal threats (both the statistical and the hysterical ones) that we permit on other days.

    I second the idea that sales volume on the streets should be at least a secondary measure of success, and I expect those results will be unambiguously positive. (This past Sunday more businesses seemed to have caught on and moved a bit out into the sidewalk, selling cold things or just showing their faces.)

  • Pursuant

    Doc – I have to disagree having been around running errands both Sundays. Schedule a few events, music, art whatever and show people what to do with the space. Sunday crossword challenge, Hop-scotch marathon, stickball game whatever. There are plenty of simple things that will draw a crowd and give businesses a reason to forgo car traffic.

    The few people I saw seated in the shade on a hot sunny day did not seem to warrant the shutting down what would normally be a busy street. If the businesses feel this impedes their business they have a right to kill this. Retail rental costs are extremely high and its very unfair of residents to burden retailers in this economic environment.

    So give em a reason to love this. Make them think this was the greatest idea since sliced bread. Then you win.

  • mfs

    Just so you know, the newly-revitalized Northside Merchants Association has been one of the key drivers and organizers of the Bedford event.

  • the more people attend an event, or a location, the more people are enjoying it.

    your evaluation seems quite pompous. some people enjoy revving of engines and the loud radios.

    all adds to our diverse culture.

  • “So give me a reason to love this. Make them think this was the greatest idea since sliced bread. Then you win.”

    What? Give me a reason to believe business was slowed, or that business owners even feel it was. That’s quite an assumption to start out with. Anyway I don’t see why you’re so concerned about winning and losing. This is a closing of a tiny portion of NYC’s streets a few Sundays out of the year. We all “win” with summer streets, or at least have the opportunity to. You can count yourself a winner every other day of the year, or on any other street on those Sundays, if that is how you insist on looking at things.

    omg forman u r kidding right? Revving engines and loud radios in the city are enjoyed by one person (the driver) out of the ten thousand people that are forced to listen to them. Announcing your glorious presence to the neighborhood with an amplifier and an unproductively combusting engine is the thing that is quite pompous. (pompous -> pomp -> “ceremony or splendid display”)

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