Brooklyn ‘Shared Streets’ Are the Start of Something Bigger

An application of 'Tactical Urbanism' that could expand elsewhere in the city.

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. We love our curvy bumpouts. Photo by Dave Colon

Street Plans public-space aficionado Ed Janoff took issue with Streetsblog’s less-than-laudatory coverage last week of the new shared streets in Downtown Brooklyn. Below, he argues that they are the first shoots of a flowering of pedestrianism that should be encouraged, not mocked.

Streetsblog’s story failed to capture important positive aspects of the project and others like it: They represent a culture shift in the thinking of traffic engineers and an application of “Tactical Urbanism” that could lead to much larger projects.

Important efforts like this one can sometimes underwhelm if you just look at what Streetsblog has called the “disappointing” results on the ground, but they are part of trends that are well worth amplifying.

Author Ed Janoff
Author Ed Janoff

Look at the history: New York’s shared-street program began with a pilot at Broadway between 24th and 25th streets in 2017, a project I helped guide and implement while at Madison Square Park Conservancy. Many neighborhood stakeholders were skeptical of that installation and pushed back — with the usual complaints that traffic would be gridlocked, someone would get run over, and that “New York is not Amsterdam.” But, of course, no serious crisis came to pass. 

Instead, the project effectively tripled the walkable public space around Worth Square and created a viable precedent for this year’s shared-street projects at Willoughby Street and University Place in Manhattan.

These projects have some significant implications:

  • They remove 50 percent to 100 percent of the on-street parking on these street segments, replacing them with vehicle-loading zones, bike parking, Citi Bike stations, and more pedestrian space. That this can occur without an angry mob of residents and businesses storming the street with torches and pitchforks is a monumental accomplishment in itself, and speaks volumes about the culture shift taking place in how curb space should be allocated. Although the sidewalk and roadway are still grade-separated where the existing curbs are left in place (those would require a multi-year, multi-million-dollar reconstruction project to change), the street operation has undergone a seismic shift. 
  • By covering the roadway with a gravel surface and posting “Share the Road” signs, the Department of Transportation is communicating that the whole space between buildings is for walking. Vehicles are now guests in a pedestrian environment — rather than the other way around. This can be a difficult design for traffic engineers to accept, so it’s not surprising that DOT is proceeding cautiously and incrementally.
  • At Willoughby Street, in particular, the shared-street project signifies the iterative evolution of the pedestrianization of Downtown Brooklyn using the tactical urbanism playbook.

Willoughby Street at Pearl Street was the site of the first DOT plaza back in 2006, followed by DUMBO and Chelsea in 2007, Flatiron in 2008, Times Square and many more in 2009, and ten years later over 75 sites citywide. Willoughby Plaza was made permanent through a capital reconstruction that finished in 2013. Then, right on the heels of that, DOT commissioned a study on further pedestrianization, which made the case for the shared-street pilot project launched this year. Plan, test, iterate, repeat!

The subtext here is that DOT traffic planners are experimenting with an operational toolkit that could be expanded massively.

Just as the funky 2006 plaza at Willoughby Street inspired the launch of the citywide NYC Plaza Program in 2007, these shared-street prototypes are laying the groundwork for potentially much bigger moves down the road, such as Barcelona-style superblocks, Dutch-style living streets, pedestrianization of Lower Manhattan, or a closure of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Union Square.

Streetsblog’s coverage in June of the debut of the University Place shared street began with the lament, “one measly block.” That misses the point: These projects are great and deserve to be expanded, so let’s all push for more of them in more places and hope that DOT will be empowered to act on the foundation of these successful pilots.

Ed Janoff is senior director of project development at Street Plans.


Eyes on the Street: Tactical Urbanism Reclaims Upper Manhattan Curb Ramp

About a year ago, someone painted a yellow line on this curb ramp, on a mostly residential street that abuts a park. “It’s the only sidewalk ramp on that side of the street for a block in either direction,” says our reader, “so when someone blocks it, if you need a ramp to access the sidewalk (or the park), you have to go a block out of the way.” According to our tipster, who walks by the ramp twice a day on weekdays, drivers are now much less likely to block it.

Streetfilm: The Transformation of Willoughby Street

This spring, the DOT transformed the corner of Willoughby and Adams Streets in downtown Brooklyn from a dull gray, little-used automobile pass-through (above) into a pedestrian space complete with chairs, benches, plants, tables and sun umbrellas.  But would the people come? Filmmaker Clarence Eckerson took his video camera to the corner to find out. The result is a 1-minute, 26-second Streetfilm on […]

Peatónito in NYC: Protecting Pedestrians in the Crosswalk

Peatónito (“little pedestrian”) might be the most beloved figure in the world of street safety. How can you not love a superhero who protects pedestrians from cars?! Since donning the cape and luchador mask three years ago, he’s become a media sensation in Mexico. This week he’s in New York City for Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero for Cities 2016 conference, […]

Streetsblog’s Brand-New Podcast: Episode 1

Behold, Streetsblog’s brand-new podcast! In what we aim to turn into a recurring feature, Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I recently chatted about the week’s news in livable streets, urbanism, and sustainable transportation. The topics are drawn from Jeff’s excellent daily compendium of transportation and planning links, The Direct Transfer, and from stories we’re tracking […]

Transit Speed and Urbanism: It’s Complicated

There’s been a rollicking online debate the past week on the subject of “slow transit.” Matt Yglesias at Vox and Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic noted the downsides of two transit projects — the DC streetcar and the Twin Cities’ Green Line, respectively — arguing that they run too slowly to deserve transit advocates’ unqualified […]