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EYES ON THE STREET: City Finally Unveils Brooklyn’s First ‘Shared Street’

Lucky you, you found a bike rack. Photo by Dave Colon

The streets are shared — and so is the disappointment.

Workers and residents are already enjoying a new "shared street" transformation of Pearl Street and parts of Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn, but even as the new configuration is improving the local streetscape, the project itself reveals the glacial pace of even the smallest improvements in basic livability in a city that prioritizes automobiles over people.

First, the good news: Last week, the Department of Transportation, backed by activists, business boosters and a nifty brass band, cut the ribbon on the borough's first "shared streets" project. Three blocks that form an L — Pearl Street between Fulton Mall and Willoughby Street, plus Willoughby Street between Pearl and Lawrence Streets — have been changed from normal city streets flanked entirely by stored cars into livable spaces with planted seating areas, bump-outs for safety, and, most important, dun-painted streets, signage and chicanes to make sure drivers know that their top speed is five miles per hour.

This December 2017 Google image shows what Pearl Street looked like before the transformation.

The entrance to Pearl Street before its redesign. Ugh. via GoogleMaps
Pearl Street looking north from Fulton Street before its redesign. Ugh. Photo: Google
The entrance to Pearl Street before its redesign. Ugh. via GoogleMaps

The "after" photo below shows how much better it is: The entrance to Pearl Street at Fulton Street begins with a pair of pedestrian bump-outs, one of which is comprised of bike racks (which we always need more of).

The entrance to the shared street on Pearl and Fulton. We love our curvy bumpouts. Photo by Dave Colon
The entrance to the shared street on Pearl and Fulton (looking west). We love our curvy bump-outs. Photo: Dave Colon
The entrance to the shared street on Pearl and Fulton. We love our curvy bumpouts. Photo by Dave Colon

The bump-outs, with their flexipost bollards, provided a clear indication to truck drivers entering Pearl Street from the south that they needed to slow down.

Meanwhile, other bump-outs on Pearl and on Willoughby Street feature large flowerpot installations and outdoor seating where humans — instead of cars — can park. In all, about a dozen spaces previously occupied by stored vehicles are now available to the larger community in the form of tables and chairs.

"It's nice now that you can sit down and enjoy your lunch break," said Haleen Rubio, who works at an office on Fulton Street. "It's beautiful, I love it."

The Willoughby section of the shared street. Photo by Dave Colon
This is Willoughby Street between Jay and Pearl streets, looking west. Not the flowerpots on the left and, alas, the car storage on the right. Photo: Dave Colon
The Willoughby section of the shared street. Photo by Dave Colon

Now, the bad news: Is that all there is?

Talk of creating just a few pedestrian-friendly streets in Downtown Brooklyn go back to the early part of this decade. Streetsblog posted a story on the potential transformation of the road in 2014 — and the story mentioned that a shared street idea had already been talked about "for years."

The reason? The roadways in question aren't even true through streets for drivers anyway, so repurposing for the booming office community in Downtown Brooklyn — where basically six subway lines and a dozen bus lines converge — is the low-hanging fruit of urban transformation. Yet it still took more than six years (all of them in the Vision Zero era) for Mayor de Blasio's Department of Transportation to make what is ultimately a tiny change in a neighborhood that is choking on parked cars, delivery trucks and illegally parked placard-protected city workers.

For starters, the DOT's version of a shared street does not meet established national standards for safety and design. According to guidelines from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the roadway in a shared street should be flush with the curb to "reinforce the pedestrian-priority nature of the street." This is how it is done in Europe, but New York's DOT went halfway. The color of the pavement is different from the surrounding street, to indicate something about the street is different, but the curb is still raised from the street and the pavement is still standard asphalt.

Yes, there's a big "SHARE THE ROAD" sign at Pearl Street and Fulton, but some drivers struggle with the concept, like the guy who entered Pearl driving faster than the recommended five miles per hour and intimidated your faithful Streetsblog correspondent as he tried to take a picture of the brass band at the ribbon-cutting. There was some shouting.

Checkmate, cars. Photo by Dave Colon
Pearl Street, looking south towards Fulton Mall. Photo: Dave Colon
The shared-street program on Pearl Street, where it meets Willoughby Street. Photo: Dave Colon

Also, parts of the curb on Willoughby Street, which doesn't feature bump-outs, have been set aside as loading zones — but multiple cars were parked in those zones, completely defeating their purpose of removing congestion and improving livability.

The city should have just barred vehicles entirely. Instead, box trucks of various sizes make deliveries in what is a very confined space. Pedestrians and cyclists are endangered as trucks back up out of the Pearl Street dead-end to turn onto Willoughby once they've made their deliveries. Even other drivers are inconvenienced by this. In one case, we watched as a box truck backed up and then scraped along the front bumper and side of a Doe Fund pickup truck that was parked on Pearl Street.

The big grinding wheels of commerce can still interrupt your idyll, as seen here on Willoughby Street. Photo by Dave Colon
The big grinding wheels of commerce can still interrupt your idyll, as seen here on Willoughby Street. Photo: Dave Colon
The big grinding wheels of commerce can still interrupt your idyll, as seen here on Willoughby Street. Photo by Dave Colon

The result is more mirage than oasis, especially given the chaos on all sides of the small improvement zone. The shared zone is bisected by Jay Street, the notorious roadway, in the small section of Downtown Brooklyn, where there were 553 crashes that injured 145 people last year.

DOT is already at work brining the shared street concept to Bowling Green this fall [PDF], but the agency's design still allows cars and trucks to seize far more of the public space than their numbers require. The DOT's own study reveals that on a winter day last year, there were about five pedestrians for every car on the strip of Broadway between the famous bull statue and Beaver Street. But all the DOT plans to do is paint the roadway and slightly widen the west sidewalk — cars and trucks will still use the roadway as a through street even though it is far more important for pedestrians. Yes, the roadway will be marked as a 5 mile-per-hour zone, but it is rare that drivers can go faster than that anyway.

Other downtown boosters have been asking the city to think more boldly and to pedestrianize a stretch from the Municipal Building all the way to Battery Park, but the city plan is a paltry version at an iconic spot in the city that is home to three key tourist attractions: the Bowling Green, the National Museum of the American Indian, and Arturo Di Modica's "Charging Bull."

Unlike the changes in Downtown Brooklyn, this "shared street" won't even include tables and chairs — a missed opportunity.

"When you're out and about you can take a couple of breaths, enjoy nature, be around people and it's not all about work mode," said Lisa Herbert, who was enjoying a respite at a table on Willoughby Street last week. "You can sort of be yourself. When you get a chance to sit down and be in the moment and be present, I think it's really really great."

Imagine if the whole city was that great — or even greater.

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