Category Archives: Vision Zero

Getting to Vision Zero

Ticketing
EIGHTY PERCENT of the residents of Manhattan don’t own a car. Most of the more than 45 million tourists who visited Manhattan last year didn’t bring a car with them. But even after all the positive changes on Manhattan streets during the Bloomberg administration, we still have auto-centric policies that only benefit a small number of people dominating the design of the public realm. The car is still king, and as long as it is, we will not get to the zero traffic deaths that Mayor DeBlasio has promised us.

Why? Because the pedestrians and cyclists are not killing the drivers: drivers going fast enough to kill any pedestrian they hit are causing one-hundred percent of the fatalities. If the drivers slowed down to truly safe speeds, they would hit few pedestrians (as we shall see), and kill almost none of them.

At the same time that the NYPD is putting 1,000 new police officers on the street to counteract a rise in murders and violence, 4 police officers were deployed today to ticket cyclists using a busy cycle track who didn’t stop and wait for the entire duration of long red lights on the Hudson River Greenway, even though for a good ninety percent of the time there were no vehicles crossing the cycle track. Riders stood astride their bikes in the hot sun, with no cars in sight, while policemen watched them to make sure they obeyed the law. Then the riders awkwardly started up again (the reason many states allow bike riders to use the rolling “Idaho Stop” is that it’s easier to go very slowly on a bike than to stop and restart).

The tickets are written in the name of safety, but it’s actually an old way of thinking that reflects a philosophy that accepts more than 35,000 traffic deaths in the US every year as the cost of keeping traffic flowing. The safety promoted by traffic engineers is part of an auto-centric paradigm that puts safety in a context in which it is understood that safety is balanced against allowing cars to go quickly and easily from here to there, without too many fenderbenders or deaths. That means that the free flow of the car comes before the convenience of pedestrians and cyclists.

The Swedish Vision Zero movement correctly points out that there are two ways to get to zero traffic deaths: separate the moving vehicles from the pedestrians, or, where cars and pedestrians can come into contact, slow the cars down. To that we can add that as long as we allow cars to legally drive outside the city at high speeds, we will have traffic deaths, no matter how many air bags are in the cars, or how far the pedestrians are from the roadway.

But our concern today is New York City, where getting to zero deaths requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about the city’s streets. Paris recently announced that with the exception of a few streets, all Parisian streets will have 30 kilometer per hour and 20 kilometer per hour speed limits—our equivalents would be 20 and 12 miles per hour. New York has taken the major and important step of changing the city speed limit to 25 mph, but that is probably just the first step in a process that will eventually make us more like Paris. That’s because a person hit by a car going 25 mph is still 10 times as likely to die as pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 15 mph. And, the driver going 15 miles per hour actually sees almost twice as much as a driver going just 25. Plus, the driver going more slowly also has more time to react, giving the slower scenario a triple advantage over the higher speed limit for saving lives.

The way to make places like the cycle track in the Greenway safe is to think about them differently than we have up until now. Instead of forcing everyone on the sidewalks and tracks to stop and wait during the long red-light cycle required for the left-turn process on the adjacent Joe DiMaggio Highway, the stoplights for the bicycle track and the pedestrian walk should give the advantage to the greatest number of people—the pedestrians and cyclists. The small number of drivers who want to cross to and from the highway should understand that when they cross they must go slowly enough that they won’t hit or hurt anyone. Experience in Europe shows that when cars and cyclists move at pedestrian speed, everyone can safely negotiate their way without accidents. One example is shown in the video of Seven Dials in London, seen below.

This seems strange to us, because we’ve all grown up in the age of the automobile. But in fact, this is what New York City streets used to be like, before what we sometimes call Organized Motordom realized that increasing car sales and oil sales depended on kicking pedestrians to the side of the road, so that cars could go faster (see the second video below).

The Bloomberg administration, and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in particular, began the process of turning this around when they reclaimed large chunks of roadway in places like Madison Square and Gansevoort Square for the pedestrian. Now that the DeBlasio administration has promised us Vision Zero—a wonderful pledge to reduce pedestrian fatalities in New York City to zero within ten years—it is time to build on that earlier work by expanding it to all places where the pedestrian and the cyclist should assume the privileged position previously given to King Car. Let’s stop ticketing cyclists on cycle tracks and transform the places where pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers have to share the road.

Seven Dials, London, ©2014 Ben Hamilton-Baillie. The cars, trucks, taxis, and tourists successfully manage mutual use of this shared space.

Broadway at Herald Square, New York, New York, 1907. Most of the pedestrians stay over on the sidewalk, but they feel comfortable stepping out into the street, which is also where they wait for the cable cars. Organized Motordom had not yet invented the term “jaywalker,” let alone pass legislation against it.

Babe Ruth and Harold Lloyd, Broadway Follies of 1927. We have met the enemy and he is us.

A Sidewalk Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

IN 1919, the car hadn’t yet conquered West 57th Street in Manhattan. Together, the sidewalks for the pedestrians were still significantly wider than the roadway, and the modern detritus of the traffic engineer is nowhere in sight.

West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue

West 57th Street in 1919, looking east towards 7th Avenue

MCNY image from “West 57th’s Hodgepodge Block,” by Christopher Gray

West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue

West 57th Street today, looking east towards 7th Avenue

Also see the unbuilt Winslow Homer Walk. You can download a PDF about Homer Walk here.

Roundabout Debate Lovefest

Roundabouts

AN EXCERPT from Street Design, called “The Problems With Modern Roundabouts” by Better! Cities & Towns, caused comment around the web in places like a private roundabout listserv. Traffic engineer Peter Swift and urban designer Geoff Dyer challenged us to a debate, which turned into more of a loveliest. You can hear it at Placemakers.com

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Turn Lanes Are Anti-Pedestrian & Therefore Anti-Urban

2ndAveTurnLane

A NEW YORK CITY MTA Bus almost ran me over this morning as I WALKED my bike in a crosswalk with a green light. Before he almost ran me over the driver honked at me, loudly, to tell me to get out of his way. And I repeat, I was walking in a crosswalk, with the walk light.

That’s what turn lanes and turn lights do. They give drivers the idea that they have a right to turn, without people getting in their way. And green turn lights and boldly marked turn lanes encourage drivers to go quickly and “take the lane,” because they are clearly in an environment set up for cars—just like in the suburbs. The bus was going at least 35 miles per hour, and so was a long stream of traffic behind him. If the bus had hit me while going 35 miles per hour, I would have almost certainly been dead. While walking with the light in a crosswalk, on an island where 80% of the people don’t own cars.

Earlier this morning, I was at the corner of Broadway and 56th Street and watched while pedestrians going both ways (across Broadway or crossing 56th Street) all had to wait after the turn light went green, giving drivers the go-ahead to turn left onto 56th Street. That should never happen in Manhattan.

FACT: There is an inverse relationship between a traffic engineer’s or DOT’s Level of Service (LOS) and the degree of walkability. That’s why in our petition to the US DOT we proposed a Walkable Index Number (WIN) for towns and cities instead of an auto-based Level of Service. WIN versus LOS equals walkability versus drivability.

Residents of Manhattan deserve better. So do all the tourists walking around the city. The only way Mayor DeBlasio’s Vision Zero pledge to reduce traffic fatalities in New York to zero will work will be to level the playing field and stop giving so much of the “space between the buildings” to the small number of people who drive in New York. Even the planet would be improved if we got over the idea that everyone has a God-given right to ignore the best transit system in America and drive into the city.

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Street Design on NPR

John Massengale was interviewed on “Everything Is Broken” on April 22:


The YouTube video above includes a slide show. Some of the slides are closely correlated with the interview, while others are only loosely connected. Click here for a higher resolution version of the video.

The video below only has an image of the cover and the audio track.


On May 27, Victor Dover will be on Baltimore Public Radio, WYPR.

“Everything Is Broken,” WUSB
Jim Lynch, “Streets!,” Different Wavelengths

Walkology, Dr. Downtown & Dr. Street

Street Design in the Providence Journal Again

Westminster Street in Providence, Rhode Island

Westminster Street in Providence, Rhode Island

We then crossed the College Street Bridge to enter downtown, and found ourselves where Weybosset and Westminster merge to form what Dr. Street said could be a sumptuous civic plaza. It is a sumptuous civic plaza, replied this doctor, and a civic dance plaza on WaterFire nights. He said it was still too wide. He noted that Nantucket’s Main Street has a horse fountain at one end and a Civil War monument at the other, around both of which cars must maneuver. He recommended an obelisk at Westminster and Weybosset to slow the cars entering downtown. What a great idea!
Dr. Street referred often to a new “paradigm shift” for making cities less car-centric. Vision Zero was conceived by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has called for zero traffic deaths, including pedestrians, in the city. These are not unpreventable “accidents” and no level is acceptable. By focusing on safety, politicians who otherwise care nothing for the niceties of good streets will feel obliged to promote the goals of the slow-streets movement.

Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, closed for a RISD street fair.

Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, closed for a RISD street fair. In most American cities it’s better to sometimes close streets for special events than to create Pedestrian Streets that are always closed to traffic.


David Brussat is the architecture critic for the Providence Journal, as well as an Editorial Board member there. He wrote about Benefit Street for Street Design, reviewed the book, and walked the streets of Providence with John Massengale (aka “Dr. Street”).

David Brussat, “The Secret to Making Great Streets,” Providence Journal
John Massengale, “Mr. Manners Goes To MOMA: The Etiquette of Deconstructivism,” Inland Architect (September/October 1988): 66-69

Street Design in Salon

“How cars conquered the American city (and how we can win it back)”

Two quotes from the article by Henry Grabar:

John Massengale and I are standing in the middle of 1st Avenue at East 4th Street, in New York’s East Village, and he does not like the feng shui. He points to the thick, white lines in the roadway, directing drivers toward a left turn. “Automobile-scale striping,” he notes. “It’s telling you: ‘This is not a place for you.’”

Part instruction manual, part history, part manifesto, the book argues that it is the street, more than anything, that shapes the city. In traveling to cities around the world and interviewing residents, pedestrians and businesspeople, Dover and Massengale found a remarkable degree of agreement about which streets are nice and which are not. “If there is so much consensus on what makes a good street,” they ask, “then why are we still building so many bad and ugly ones?”