“Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.” — Jane Jacobs, The Death & Life of Great American Cities
There’s a revolution going on in how we use our streets, but the evolution of the revolution is slow. Complete Streets, Slow Streets, Open Streets—what would Jane say?
Join CNU NYC and John Massengale for a virtual tour of Jane’s Greenwich Village, a history of New City streets, and a discussion of Streets for People and Slow New York.
WHEN: Tuesday, May 4 (Jane’s Birthday), 3 PM (Happy Hour to Follow — BYOB)
Yorkville Promenade (Second Avenue), New York, New York, Massengale & Co LLC and Dover, Kohl & Partners, 2011. An aerial view looking south from 86th Street.
A Streetsblog Op-Ed from John Massengale:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for making New York City streets safer for pedestrians and social distancing while we all stay close to home. Mayor de Blasio responded with a program to open more space for pedestrians on one street per borough.
We can do more. We should use this time when traffic is light to work on ideas for safer, quieter, and more pleasant streets for pedestrians and cyclists now and in the future. During this COVID-19 crisis, we can implement ideas that are great for the long-term health of the city. Specifically, let’s make some of our quiet side-streets primarily for cyclists and walkers.
On November 25, 2019, CNU NYC Chair John Massengale and former Congress for New Urbanism Chair and President John Norquist published an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News. The topic was what to do about the falling-down Brooklyn Queens Expressway and to improve city life in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The drawing above illustrates this part of the text:
On the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, Chambers Street used to go through the Municipal Building to a dense urban neighborhood. Now the gateway to Manhattan is a 24-hour mass of irritated drivers honking at pedestrians trying to get from the subway to City Hall Park. There are enough existing ramps that all the cars could be redirected back towards Water Street and the FDR Drive. That would free up the no-man’s land between Park Street and Centre Street for a great new public space at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
John Norquist has decades of experience with highway tear downs. When he was Mayor of Milwaukee, Norquist was one of the first American mayors to tear down a city highway. As Chair and President of the CNU, he started a program called Highways to Boulevards that has worked with states, cities, and Congress. Their 2019 report Cities Without Futures can be downloaded here.
Case in point, the beautiful Elm trees on and near Main Street, like the one above.
I gather the problem is handicap access, which is a real problem. But there’s more than one way to do anything, and design is about solving problems with solutions that are both functional and beautiful.
The debate continues over how to make New York City’s streets less crowded, safer and better for people as well as cars. Some, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, call for congestion pricing in Manhattan, although so far the New York State Legislature has not allowed that. Mayor Bill de Blasio and groups such as Transportation Alternatives promote Vision Zero, aiming for zero traffic deaths in New York City by 2024.
It’s worth looking at European cities, which have led the movement to make city streets that are as good for public life as they are for driving. In recent months, I’ve visited four of the cities with the most innovative street designs: London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
November 13th—Friday the 13th—marked the 13th day in a row that a pedestrian died on a New York City Street, all killed by cars or buses going too fast. They were among the 19 pedestrian deaths in the city last month—basically, one person lost for every business day. These fatalities occurred because despite all the progress New York has made since Mayor de Blasio and his DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg signed the Vision Zero Pledge in December 2013 (more on this below), most of our city streets are still seen primarily as transportation corridors for cars and trucks.
Until we prioritize pedestrian safety over traffic flow, we will never get to zero deaths for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, or their passengers. But the good news is that when we do make streets that are safe for pedestrians, traffic still flows—and it becomes easy to design streets where people can want to get out of their cars and walk, enjoying public life. Which, after all, is what city life is all about. We don’t have to choose between pedestrian plazas in Times Square and suburban-style arterials. We can have our cake and eat it too.
A little history is relevant here: for decades, our city streets have been controlled by the DOT—the Department of Transportation— which employs traffic engineers and transportation planners who have traditionally seen their job as making traffic flow quickly and safely. They use a federal grading system that grades street quality according to the “Level of Service” (LOS)—a measurement of how well traffic moves.
Anything that impeded traffic flow was a problem to be identified and eliminated. Trees became known as Fixed Hazardous Objects (FHOs), because they damage cars that hit them. Standard practice in traffic engineering is therefore to confine trees to a Vegetative Containment Zone kept away from the vehicles.
People are called MHOs—Moving Hazardous Objects. They also slow down and damage cars that hit them, and so they’re kept away from the cars too.