Volume 78 - Number 37 / February 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

A still shot from a 2007 film that Streetfilms director Clarence Eckerson made of Portland neighbors coming together to paint an intersection yellow with red lines. The event took place during the city’s seventh annual Village Building Convergence, where hundreds of volunteers worked together to make their streets more livable and community oriented.

Roll it! Films on bicycles and streets offer ideas

By Heather Murray

Members of Community Boards 2 and 4, West Siders and transportation advocates came out to New York Univeristy last Tuesday to view a series of short films celebrating innovative techniques that cities around the world are using to make their streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The films transported the audience to a life-size chess game on a Melbourne street, showed kids playing stickball in Havana and offered a look at Paris’s bus rapid transit system.

One film was about the removal of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and how that opened up the waterfront.

Another featured new diagonal crosswalks that the city of Los Angeles recently installed. During pedestrian light phases, those on foot have free rein to cross any which way in the intersection without fear of being hit by a car. Los Angeles first installed crosswalks like these in the 1950s, but they were removed in 1958 after a city engineer’s report found they impeded traffic flow.

Perhaps the most unique film of the evening showed Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood creating a “share-it square” community gathering space in an intersection. The community comes together annually to paint the intersection. Neighbors report that the painted intersection draws the attention of drivers, who slow down while driving through it, and also gives those involved in the painting a greater sense of community. The street corners feature a community bulletin board, a 24-hour tea station manned by neighbors who replenish the hot water and tea, a “free-cycle” station to exchange goods and a children’s playhouse.  

“Most people who see this film love the idea,” Streetfilms director Clarence Eckerson said, but readily admitted there would be opposition to instituting something similar in New York City, even among the bike- and pedestrian-friendly crowd. “There are a small fraction of people who find it way too hippy,” he said.

The majority of films Eckerson showed weren’t shot in far-flung locales. Instead, they highlighted New Yorkers working in conjunction with the city’s Department of Transportation to reclaim street space from cars. One film featured a Parking Day across the five boroughs during which residents took over designated parking spots for one day: A line formed near the Museum of Modern Art to sit on a park bench pulled into a parking spot; the Lower Eastside Girls Club brought a blender machine powered by a bicycle, and parked it by the curb; and a gymnastics instructor in Brooklyn created a kids’ gym in a converted parking spot.

A nonprofit organization, The Open Planning Project, is behind both Streetfilms and its affiliated Web site, Streetsblog. Mark Gorton founded The Open Planning Project, which is located in the West Village, back in 1999. Gorton hired Eckerson more than five years ago to produce short Web films on making New York a safer place for bicyclists and pedestrians after catching wind of Eckerson’s cable-access show “bikeTV.”

Eckerson wasn’t always a bicycle advocate. In fact, he didn’t even own one when he first moved to the city from Albany back in 1991. Three years later, a co-worker of his girlfriend’s convinced him to buy a bike. Moments after paying for it, he decided he would ride all the way home from 50th St. and Ninth Ave. to Brooklyn. Biking seemed easier to him than the alternative of attempting to navigate the subway system with bike in tow. He didn’t know the bike routes and got lost several times on his way out of Manhattan, but found the trip “so exhilarating. From then on, I was hooked,” he said of his inaugural ride.

So hooked, in fact, that Eckerson eventually chaired the Brooklyn Transportation Alternatives Committee in the late 1990s, and around the same time launched “bikeTV.” He joked that he has been called “the hardest-working man in transportation show business.”

Aaron Naparstek is editor in chief of Streetsblog — the online advocacy journalism arm of the Livable Streets Network umbrella organization that Gorton has created. Naparstek said the two initiatives started to really take off in late 2006.

Seven years ago, Naparstek was spending his free time posting honkus — a word he made up to describe haiku poems about honking — on lampposts in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He later wrote a book about humorous honku poetry, “Honku: The Zen Antidote for Road Rage.”

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1993, Naparstek moved to New York City to attend Columbia Journalism School. His experience at Columbia pushed him toward exploring Internet journalism long before it became mainstream.

Naparstek, like Eckerson before him, also held the position of Brooklyn Transportation Alternatives Committee chairperson.

Naparstek described his boss Gorton as someone who is passionate about utilizing “Web-based software tools to get people more involved in urban processes, in the planning and design of our communities.” Gorton founded peer-to-peer file-sharing company Lime Wire in 2000.

Streetsblog has organically grown from a project mostly focused on New York City to one where bloggers from around the country contribute their opinions and coverage of their communities’ streets to an entire Streetsblog network. Bloggers in Washington, D.C., have kept Streetsblog up to date with coverage of the transportation portion of the Stimulus Bill. Naparstek said Streetsblog’s network coordinated between 300 and 500 calls to Senator Barbara Boxer’s office advocating for $50 billion in transportation funding, rather than $50 billion for highway improvements.

“New York is vying for a lot of federal funding,” he said.

Naparstek is already looking ahead to galvanizing the troops for more bike- and pedestrian-friendly funding in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, known as TEA, which is set to be reauthorized by Congress late this year.

“By the time the TEA bill rolls around later this year, we’ll have a powerful tool on our hands,” Naparstek said.

At a forum held after the Streetsfilm Festival, members of Community Boards 2 and 4 raised concerns about managing sidewalk space and enforcing traffic rules for both pedestrians and bicyclists.

C.B. 4 Transportation Committee Co-chairperson Christine Berthet said that C.B. 4 has started a process, by sending a survey out, to prioritize how residents want sidewalk space to be utilized.

Zella Jones, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Sidewalks, Public Facilities and Public Access Committee, voiced her concern over the loss of public sidewalk space to private newsstands and sidewalk cafes.

“I agree with you,” Berthet told her. “Sidewalk enforcement is difficult, because it’s managed by so many agencies.”

A resident complained about deliverymen on bikes breaking traffic rules.

Gorton chimed in, “There’s almost a complete and total lack of enforcement by police,” adding that there is a law on the books requiring deliverymen to wear a jersey identifying their business. Gorton feels greater enforcement would curb those flouting the rules.

“You don’t have to hand too many tickets to a Chinese restaurant” before its owner makes sure all of his or her employees are obeying the law, Gorton said. “These are not problems that are hard to solve.”

Berthet added that C.B. 4 plans to call the local police precincts every month asking for statistics on how many tickets they are giving cyclists each month. She believes consistent monitoring of enforcement will lead police to give a higher priority to ticketing law-breakers.

Eckerson revealed he has plans for a new Streetfilms series on the psychological and physical effects of traffic on people, covering everything from asthma to noise levels.

The Livable Streets Network that Gorton runs also recently launched a Livable Streets Education initiative. Kim Wiley-Schwartz, the initiative’s director, said she is looking for schools to partner with this fall. The program provides in-school residency programs for elementary, middle and high school students free of charge.

For more information about Streetfilms, Streetsblog or Livable Streets Education, visit www.livablestreets.com. Tips on street issues can be sent to tips@streetsblog.org. 


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