An Open Letter To DOT Commissioner Rodriguez on Eve of #FixCanal Workshop

Kids trying to cross Canal Street on a "Gridlock Alert" day on Wednesday. File photo: Julianne Cuba
Kids trying to cross Canal Street on a "Gridlock Alert" day on Wednesday. File photo: Julianne Cuba

Tonight at 6 p.m, the Department of Transportation will host its first workshop on the long process of making Canal Street safer and more appealing to residents and businesses. Since the beginning of the de Blasio administration, there have been 4,817 reported crashes on the stretch of Canal between the Manhattan Bridge and West Street, injuring 109 cyclists, 190 pedestrians and 520 motorists, killing one cyclist, five pedestrians and one motorist. With those numbers in mind, architect John Massengale sent this letter to DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez — and shared it with us for publication. To register for the workshop, click here.

Dear Commissioner Rodriquez,

I’m writing to you because I just signed up for a workshop to improve Canal Street that your department is running tonight. I met you when you were a Councilman. I know you care deeply about making New York streets safer and better for city life.

There was more carnage than usual on New York’s streets this weekend. One reaction I have is that until the NYC DOT fundamentally changes in at least two ways, most of the department’s work will be band aids.

The agency still sees its primary job as moving cars. And it does little or nothing to reduce the number of cars in the city.

John Massengale on the street.
John Massengale on the street.

The two priorities are both incompatible and bad for city life. If you want cars to move, you can’t put five pounds of cars into two-pound bags. If you want a city where the space between the buildings supports public life, you can’t take most of that space for machines.

You know all this. But you are the Commissioner at a time when Covid has brought us to a tipping point. European cities are making life on the streets fundamentally better. London has Low Traffic Neighborhoods and a commitment to become the most walkable city in Europe. Paris is moving towards “the 15-minute city,” where all daily needs will be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. And it has made large portions of its historic center car-free.

New York has victories here and there, like the best Open Streets. But overall, we are worse off than we were before Covid. Last month, we had the most traffic deaths in 14 years. And we continue spending billions of dollars in support of the same old goals.

I imagine the DOT will focus on incremental change at the workshop I signed up for, with wider sidewalks and some bump-outs here and there.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio made the Vision Zero pledge, promising zero traffic deaths in New York by 2024. It’s clear the DOT is no longer working towards that goal. The streets we build will never get us there. We need to get back to designs and policies that will. We need a better New York City, with fewer cars, less death, and healthier streets.

I know you agree. But I don’t see the DOT doing what’s necessary to get there.

Best,

John Massengale AIA CNU

John Massengale is an architect and urban designer. Follow him on Twitter @jmassengale. To register for the workshop, click here.

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