Photo by Will Sherman
Cyclists take to the new, protected Grand St. bike lane.
All the world is watching New York City’s streets
By Paul Steely White and Wiley Norvell
Last year was the first time New Yorkers finally got a glimpse of what 21st-century streets look like. In 2008, acres of asphalt were given back to pedestrians with new plazas at Madison Square, Gansevoort Plaza and the Bronx Hub. The city experimented with the most innovative bike lanes yet on Eighth Ave. and Grand St. After years of focusing on what couldn’t work on New York City streets, the city finally started generating New York solutions. Downtown, clogged with traffic congestion and in dire need of public space, reaped a series of major improvements thanks to the dogged efforts of community boards, local activists and citywide advocates.
Transportation Alternatives was founded in 1973 to reclaim New York City streets from the automobile, and never was there a more prolific year in our history than 2008. From Chicago to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, the rest of the country is watching the transformation afoot in New York City. And for those of us who fought against inertia in decades past, there has never been a time more thrilling than the present.
The bike boom
Bicycling is New York City’s fastest-growing mode of transportation. Bike commuting increased 35 percent last year alone. Mayor Bloomberg’s expansion of the bike lane network can claim much of the credit. Not only did the city lay down more bike lanes than ever before in 2008 (more than 80 miles total), but the quality and safety of those lanes have improved dramatically. Protected lanes on Eighth and Ninth Aves. are the envy of cities across the U.S., while the innovative Grand St. bike lane, spanning Community Boards 2 and 3, uses a strategically placed row of parked cars to protect bicyclists from moving traffic.
These projects were not universally heralded from the get-go. Street design in a city as dense and varied as New York City never achieves total consensus, especially when the designs are new and unfamiliar. But the ongoing review process with community boards has helped iron out unanticipated problems, and has ensured that projects like the Grand St. bike lane are continually revisited, with changes to parking regulations and signal timing being made where necessary.
What may prove the biggest aid to the city’s burgeoning population of bicyclists has nothing to do with New York City streets. After years in legislative limbo, a City Council bill introduced by Councilmembers David Yassky and Gale Brewer to allow tenants to bring their bicycles into commercial buildings finally had its day in the sun. A joint hearing of three committees vetted the bill, Intro. 871, “The Bicycle Access Bill,” which now enjoys a significant majority of support in the Council. As long as tenants provide their own space, Intro. 871 would enable workers to bring their bicycles through a freight or main entrance. The legislation now awaits the support of Speaker Christine Quinn, who backed its previous iteration in years past, to help clear the way for a final vote.
A city that walks
Beginning in 2007, Transportation Alternatives brought Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogotà, Colombia, and pioneer of major car-free events in his home city, here to convince New York City policymakers about the merits of giving streets over to recreational use. He managed to win over a chorus of enthusiasts at City Hall and in the private sector, paving the way for New York to join dozens of other cities worldwide that host major car-free events during the summer. On three Saturdays last August, something incredible happened on Park Ave. and Lafayette St. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers stepped off the sidewalks and into the streets. Summer Streets turned 90 blocks of New York City streets, from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, into a continuous stretch of car-free space for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.
By all accounts, Summer Streets was a home run. The skeptics were quick to recant after the first weekend, as the infectious enthusiasm of the event spread. Hardened New Yorkers, wary of cookie-cutter street fairs, found something new in the wide, unprogrammed street space — room to breathe.
Changes of a more permanent variety were rolled out at Gansevoort Plaza, where years of community organizing and grassroots planning resulted in broad new swaths of pedestrian space. Acres of more asphalt were put underfoot at Madison Square, where one of the city’s most dangerous traffic tangles was sorted out, providing new pedestrian plazas for the throngs of tourists and office workers that pack the space surrounding the Flatiron Building. Last month’s announcement of even more ambitious plans for Times Square and Herald Square is helping to build more confidence.
Traffic justice deferred
This winter brought with it a series of fatal crashes between pedestrians and motor vehicles, and an unprecedented wave of outrage as drivers who killed were put back behind the wheel without ever facing consequences. The worst crash took place on Jan. 22, when a van left idling and unattended backed onto a busy Chinatown sidewalk killing two children and injuring 14 other pedestrians. Despite breaking the law, the driver has not been held to account for his actions. Transportation Alternatives is working with the families of Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez in their pursuit for justice, and is working at City Hall and in Albany to hold deadly drivers more accountable.
Traffic crime is rampant on New York City streets. A study released by Transportation Alternatives in January surveyed more than 15,000 cars citywide and found 39 percent in violation of the city’s 30 mile-per-hour speed limit. Worst of all, dangerous corridors like East Houston St. topped the list, with 70 percent of drivers speeding. Twenty times more crashes in New York City result from factors like speeding and driver inattention than alcohol involvement. T.A. is calling for the implementation of speed-enforcement cameras, better tracking of traffic crime by the New York Police Department and safer street designs to slow cars down.
Parking reform clicks
The case for parking reform got a shot in the arm when a June 2008 study by Transportation Alternatives showed that nearly 365,000 miles per year were driven in search of parking — the equivalent of 15 trips around the equator — within a single 15-block area of the Upper West Side. Citywide, that translates into tens of millions of miles driven unnecessarily by drivers that have already reached their destinations, and simply can’t find a space to park on the street.
The city dipped its toe in the parking reform waters with the Peak Rate Parking pilot project in Greenwich Village. The program, a collaborative experiment between the Department of Transportation and Community Board 2, notches up the rate of metered parking during peak hours to persuade some motorists to make their trips during a less busy time of day, or not to hold the space longer than is necessary. It’s a step in the right direction, but T.A. and other transportation and environmental groups are advocating for more nimble parking rates, that change in real time to reflect demand on an hour-by-hour basis. San Francisco is about to embark on an experiment along these lines, and New York should watch its progress closely.
But even without major changes to parking meters, the city’s decision to eliminate 60 percent of government-issued parking placards over the course of 2008 means thousands fewer workers unnecessarily driving to the city’s core every day. Since Transportation Alternatives exposed 77 percent of permit holders using the privilege illegally back in 2007, the city has been forced to confront this long-simmering problem. But the daily litany of posts on Uncivilservants.org, a Web site that allows New Yorkers to post photos and descriptions of illegally parked placard-bearing cars, points to the need for much deeper reform. Routine enforcement by local parking agents against government workers who continue to use their placards to park illegally remains inconsistent, and much work remains before placard-plagued neighborhoods like Chinatown, the City Hall area and Tribeca are freed from this problem altogether.
The reforms afoot are the first signs that New York City is righting its ship. Mayor Bloomberg and Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan deserve credit for tackling new and innovative street designs.
Much remains to be done in 2009. T.A. will be working where we have proven to be most effective: bringing the city, local leaders and innovators from abroad together, to develop the New York City model for 21st-century streets. And if 2008 was any indication, the world will have its eyes focused on New York City streets for another year to come.
Steely White is executive director and Norvell is communications director, Transportation Alternatives