New York City’s Transformation

NYC bike rackOver the past decade New York City has been transformed from a hardscrabble city where motorists practically had the run of city streets (perhaps our greatest public space!) to a hardscrabble city where those of us who walk and bike have at least a fighting chance to survive. And while the playing field is not exactly level, the transformation of high-profile thoroughfares suggests the problem is recognized. With appropriate policies, better enforcement and continued infrastructure improvements, we’ll at least put non-motorists back on the scoreboard after a century+ shutout by motor traffic interests and an ongoing assist from unaccountable policymakers.

Multimodal mobility has never enjoyed greater support in New York City than during a decade of infrastructure improvements under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Why did the Mayor recognize the needs of non-motor road users and so embrace innovations? Because it simply makes sense. The Mayor had made public health a major priority and active transportation is a health-enhancing activity. (The Mayor himself dropped a few pounds while in office.) The city’s epidemic traffic fatalities were long a problem, and nowhere more than in the boroughs, where wide thoroughfares (like Queens Boulevard, aka the ‘boulevard of death’) showed how closely tied were prevailing vehicle speeds to pedestrian deaths. Slowing traffic through calming measures could mitigate that hazard.

The Mayor was also an efficiency enthusiast who likely bridled at the lost productivity (not to mention lost wages) when pedestrians and cyclists competed for the right-of-way only to come out on the losing end in a collision. Careless riders, too posed a problem. They frightened pedestrians by disregarding traffic controls and even riding against one-way traffic.

Yet bringing order to a metropolis historically resistant to micro-management was no easy task. It couldn’t come at the barrel of gun (as ghoul Rudy Guiliani found when he tried to corral pedestrians with barriers at corners) and lawful behavior in a city long used to negotiating the streets in ad-hoc fashion couldn’t be compelled through higher jaywalking fines. (Indeed our own LAPD could take that lesson to heart and ease-up on the jaywalking crackdown Downtown.)

Bloomberg sought instead to simply reallocate the limited street space to all road users. His DOT could clearly demarcate who belongs where on the streets. With striping the DOT could carve out a place for those who ride. The city fashioned pedestrian plazas from traffic-choked intersections (like this off-the-beaten-path square in Corona, Queens) and many of these so-called ‘demonstration’ projects became permanent fixtures. (Read more about New York’s innovations in Cycling in New York: Innovative Policies at the Urban Frontier.)

It’s been nothing less than a transformation for the few areas in this city of eight million that have benefited from the attention of Bloomberg and his DOT honcho, Janette Sadik-Kahn. But not all areas did benefit. Likewise, not all neighborhoods have been flooded with the investment capital that washed in with Bloomberg’s unprecedented up-zoning of nearly 40% of the city. Bloomberg’s legacy is a complicated one to be sure.

Here we present a slideshow of before/after images of enhanced-mobility infrastructure improvements starting perhaps with the most startling transformation – that of Times Square (looking south on Broadway). Click on an image to start the slideshow.

Lessons from New York

Political leadership is essential. Such change could not come about without the visionary leadership of Department of Transportation chief Janette Sadik-Khan. With unwavering backing from Bloomberg her department implemented many innovations and together they re-wrote the complete streets textbook.

Second, the big gains come not at the center but at the margins. It’s one thing to muscle through signature efforts like Times Square, Herald Square and Union Square. But Manhattan is not the boroughs, where tension with City Hall is ongoing and community boards enjoy significant power. Executive meddling there is not always welcomed even if its for safety. (Witness the soft drink policy fiasco.) At the margins – in quotidian places like Corona, Jackson Heights, and Ozone Park, and corridors like Queens Boulevard, Grand Concourse and Ocean Parkway – complete streets measures will have the greatest impact on the collective consciousness. After all, New York City’s other four boroughs are home to people who may not have traveled to Manhattan in decades. The city has to bring the innovation to them.

The projects with the most significant aggregate impact are the least capital-intensive individually.  New York’s use of ‘continental crosswalks,’ curb extensions, and pedestrian refuges, like so many treatments depicted in these DOT images, are simply paint-on-pavement. Once cleared they can be implemented at a relatively low cost.

Effective leadership benefits from a voters’ mandate for change. Expanded sidewalks and raised pedestrian plazas are capital-intensive. Transformations like Times Square are politically hot-button. And together they’ve generated no small amount of heat for the prior Mayor. They also made the former DOT chief Sadik-Khan a household name (not in a good way). Bloomberg rode a wave of popularity for two terms; his successor prevailed in a landslide – which augurs well for de Blasio’s ‘vision zero’ policy prescription:

The City must take decisive and sustained action to reduce street fatalities each year until we have achieved “Vision Zero” – a city with zero fatalities or serious injuries caused by car crashes on the streets of New York…. The City must invest in dramatic safety improvements targeted towards the most dangerous intersections and thoroughfares, particularly around schools, in neighborhoods where elderly New Yorkers increasingly reside….We must ensure that Department of Transportation expands its capacity to bring safety improvements to at least 50 corridors and dangerous intersections each year….[and] quadruple the number of slow zones – to 52 – over the next four years. – Bill de Blasio

Change can be difficult. ‘Vision zero’ means making tangible change in the fabric of the community. It’s one thing if we riders view the playing field as tilted against us; from that perspective, paint-on-pavement is the stuff of mobility liberation. But if you’re a local wary of being struck by speeding cyclists riding the bike lane in the wrong direction? Sadik-Khan’s changes engendered no small resistance in the ‘hood and even prompted Iris Weinshall, a former DOT chief and all-around anti-bike crank, to lead an epic and losing battle against the now-archetypal Prospect Park green bicycle lane.

New York may suggest the way toward the multimodal mobility future, but it’s a message we’re late in getting out here in Beverly Hills. Despite the language of our plans, our policymakers haven’t made an effort (beyond hand-wringing) to address the negative effects of congestion on quality-of-life. We’ve not even begun to think outside the gridlock box. Simply coaxing a pro-bike lanes recommendation out of our Santa Monica Boulevard Blue-Ribbon Committee was a major accomplishment.

More Changes for a City Always in Flux

Those of us tired of going head-to-head with motorists may look to New York’s successes and feel envious. But it’s complicated. For those of us fortunate enough to have known that great city prior to Bloomberg’s reign, during the closing decades of the industrial era, say, when crime topped the headlines and hope was sometimes in short supply, the transformations highlighted here prompt ambivalence.

We never like the sclerotic truck traffic and imperious taxis. We hated battling motorists in crosswalks. Taking to the saddle for a quick ride up and over the outer roadway of the Queensboro Bridge with the motorists was lunacy. We remember back when merely riding up 6th avenue from the Broadway wholesale district through the garment district and up into corporate canyon could pigeonhole you as nothing more than an everyday bike messenger: hardly worthy of a patch of blacktop.

Of course New York wasn’t its best self then. But it was damn good enough. The city wore its pride on the sleeve with a preternatural disregard for criticism (and critics). Now as that old era slips into our new one, change seems to abound. Along with the new mobility paradigm comes all the rest: metastasizing Citibanks and Whole Foods Markets that swallow city blocks. It’s arguably safer than ever to ride a bicycle, but to what end? Literally, to what destination are we headed?

Greenpoint Brooklyn
What bike-friendly infrastructure? Greenpoint, Brooklyn muddles through as it waits for bike lanes, bike boxes and curb extensions to arrive.

Northwest QueensIncreasingly we find the city of which we’ve long been enamored not in downtown or midtown Manhattan, or even in the villages east or west. We’re not much interested in Park Slope or Williamsburg either. Get on our rear wheel and follow us to Elmhurst or Jackson Heights, Queens; Washington Heights or Kingsbridge, in the Bronx; Ditmas Park or the Flatlands in Brooklyn. Places like northwest Queens (at right) keep it real with the old New York look and feel even if bike-friendly streets have been slow to reach to this particular margin. But that’s just fine. When the twenty-first century transformation makes its way out to the city corners we’ll be waiting.

Slideshow images courtesy of the New York Department of Transportation. Big h/t to Architect’s Newspaper for the original post and captions.