One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

sullivan450.jpgThe Times has an op-ed today titled, “The City That Never Walks” about how New York is “falling behind” other American cities when it comes to, what, exactly? “Pedestrian issues,” the author writes, whatever that means. But the writer couldn’t possibly be talking about the actual number of steps a New Yorker takes every day compared to all other city residents in the nation. Nor could the writer be talking about the car ownership rate either, which is far lower in New York than any other city. Even though I am in agreement with the sentiment of this op-ed — that walking and biking are better modes of transportation on many levels, and cities should design streets and sidewalks to facilitate those alternatives — this piece is not at all convincing in its main assertion, that New York is “falling behind” other American cities when it comes walkability.

Yes, other cities are improving mass transit and creating walkable downtowns. Great. This is hardly a zero-sum game. I’m also 100 percent supportive of the grassroots efforts here in New York to calm traffic and improve pedestrian life that the author mentions (Gansevoort Plaza for one, which I’ve posted about here). But to say that New York is “falling behind” other American cities without saying what is being measured is rather sloppy, and provides the libertarian crowd ammunition to dismiss planners and planner-friendly advocates as silly. Here’s another bit of silliness:

Boston’s mayor has endorsed converting Hanover Street in the city’s North End into a car-free pedestrian mall. Why don’t we do the same in part or even all of SoHo?

This has been tried before and has failed spectacularly. Car-free, pedestrian-only “malls” were a fad in the 1970s and almost every single street that banned traffic has since been converted back after the pedestrian-only zone not only failed to revitalize street life, but in fact killed what was left of the street-level retail.

First rule of thumb: diversity. Cars don’t have to rule the road, but eliminating any form of transportation to promote another is the surest way to dampen activity and life. The fact is, on a weekend in Soho, when every inch of sidewalk is clogged with shoppers — who often spill onto the cobblestone streets, knocking people over with 7 shopping bags — cars are not the problem. Making life easier for shoppers in Soho would be about the last thing that needs to happen there.

(Not to mention the title, “A City That NEVER Walks?” I won’t get on the author of this article for the headline, because it probably wasn’t his doing; a headline writer on the op-ed desk most likely scanned the article and, not taking it very seriously, reformulated the first cliche that came to mind and stuck it at the top.)

New York ABSOLUTELY needs to re-prioritize away from auto-driven transportation and toward pedestrians, bikers, scooters, etc. Alas, this op-ed does not advance that argument very much. (Illustration by Harry Campbell).

11 Responses to One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

  1. Dave says:

    I agree with most of what you say, but as someone who’s spent alot of time looking into pedestrian malls, I take issue with your assertion that they don’t EVER work. Yes, many of the pedestrain malls that were built in the US in the 1970’s were miserable failures that did more damage than good, but that doesn’t mean that pedestrain malls as a category have failed. There are also several pedestrain malls that have been extremely succesful both in the US (Santa monica’s 3rd street promenade) and across the world (Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, the Stroget in Copenhagen). When it comes down to it, I think that city planners in the US still have not really figured out what combination of surrounding factors will lead to a succesfull pedestrain mall instead of a failure. Pedestrian malls can be a wonderfull amenity (just look at Old Stone Street in the financial district in NYC), they are just too often over-used as a silver bullet solutions in situations in which they do not belong. The question of whether a pedestrian mall in SOHO is appropriate is a valid one.

  2. There are a few successful pedestrian malls, even in the US. But of the hundreds that were implemented in American cities in the 1970s, the vast majority failed. Even today, after two decades of urban revitalizaiton, there are probably very few places where closing streets to auto traffic makes sense. The one case, as pointed out by the author of the op-ed, is 42nd Street, another project I’ve mentioned here on Polis after meeting the main proponent of this idea at several functions (check out vision42 here: But aside from that, eliminating any form of transportation is hardly a good idea. The fact that the writer suggested it in Soho means that this is not a serious op-ed. Any streets where it would make sense at all are already narrow, one-way cobblestone streets where few cars attempt to traverse already.

  3. D says:

    I think the writer is pretty clear that NYC is falling behind in policy-making.

    Sure, Chicago is still more car-dependent than NYC. But if Bloomberg were saying and doing even half the things that Daley is saying and doing to make the city more ped- and bike- and transit-friendly, NYC would be in way better shape than it is today. Unfortunately, as this op/ed points out, NYC is actually going in the opposite direction — building out tons of new parking with every big new development in the outer boros, hostility towards cyclists at every turn, a DOT that seems to operate with a 1950s mindset.

    And you’ve got to be kidding me about Soho. Do you really think that getting rid of on-street parking on Prince Street on the weekends for, like, 40 cars between Bway and W. Bway would somehow dampen street life there? It’d be a huge boon.

  4. Mayor Daley, in his fifth or sixth term, has unchecked power to implement any policy he chooses. Chicagoans are unbelievably lucky that he has a progressive vision for how cities should work. This had virtually no resemblance to NYC. As for eliminating some parking spaces in Soho being a “huge boon,” that seems to be an exageration, and even if true, what kind of “boon” are we talking about? More shoppers? The problem with Soho has nothing to do with not enough space given over to shoppers. The entire district has turned itself over to shoppers, making it a rather unattractive place to be, frankly. My criticism is not that NYC shouldn’t implement better transportation alterntiaves, or that it lacks vision in that regard, but that this op-ed failed to make the case it set out to make, that the city is “falling behind” some measurement that was never articulated.

  5. Dave says:

    Wow! Now I totally disagree with you. I’ve read the plan for the 42nd street vision, I think that that’s totally misguided and will fail. Soho makes much more sense for a pedestrian mall. I think you’re totally misdiagnosing the problem with Soho.

  6. Fail? It’s never going to happen. All I was saying is that 42nd street is the only place where I can see closing a street to traffic might be a good idea. In Soho, I’m not diagnosing a problem, I’m simply stating that closing streets there doesn’t make sense. What streets in Soho should be closed to traffic? The place has been overrun by retail and shoppers. I’m not saying it’s a problem that needs to be “fixed”; I personally hate it, but it’s not an urban planning problem, and neither is traffic on Mercer or parking on Spring a real problem, either. It’s just a dumb idea thrown into an op-ed that is, again, not very well executed.

  7. TU says:

    I agree with Lisa that making SoHo into a pedestrian district would actually “dampen activity and life.”

    In contrast, one of the nice things about the rebuilding of Union Square Park West (correct name?), so it seems to me, is the fact that they did NOT convert it into a pedestrian only street, as proposed by some community group, but instead narrowed it into a two (?) lane street having wide sidewalks and plenty of space for pedestrians.

    Another good example, to my mind, of a sidewalk widening (and thus a roadbed narrowing) was the sidewalk widenings, that were sponsored by the Eighth St. B.I.D., on Eighth St,, between Sixth Ave. and Broadway (?).

    A few weeks ago on Streetsblog, if I recall correctly, there was a feature on widening the sidewalks in SoHo along Broome St. and/or Grand. Since the sidewalks along Broome St. and/or Grand St. do, indeed, seem to be unusually narrow (as were the ones along Eighth St., which were narrowed, originally, to make with for street cars), this seems to me like more reasonable and useful approach to the “pedestrianization” of SoHo.

    — Benjamin Hemric

  8. Nikk says:

    I just want to make a few points:

    – There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not a pedestrian street would work in a particular area, such as the retail uses located there (type, size, regional v. local), the amount of pedestrian traffic, the location of transit, the vehicle traffic patterns in the area, the location of loading areas and off-street parking, and most importantly: the people who use the space.

    New York has a much greater density than most American cities, which makes it a more viable place to put ped streets in general, but ped streets work well in other cities that have less density (i.e. European cities). A lot of it is about frame of mind – we are a car oriented culture, even here in New York (much of the outer boroughs is extremely car oriented, so is Upper Manhattan and so are the places where many of the shoppers and store owners/managers live, be it NYC or elsewhere).

    – NYC is ~very~ behind when it comes to transportation policy, and mayoral leadership would make a difference. Let’s see what comes of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 effort.

    Where we go wrong:

    *In general, parking requirements are too high, especially in mid- and high-density districts. Instead we should be looking at disincentives, such as permit parking for residential areas.
    *We have a dismal amount of amenities for pedestrians (street trees, street maps, benches, public toilets etc.), let alone amenities for bikers (racks, bike storage rooms, bike lanes, changing rooms etc.).
    *NYCDOT resists installing amenities without a functioning Business Improvement District to maintain them (and help get the money to pay for them). We need to get our priorities straight.
    *We have not been exploring creative strategies such as congestion pricing.
    *We have not been exploring surface transit to any significance: light rail, water transit, bus rapid transit etc. (the latter initiative is in it’s infancy now – we are years behind).
    *We are not working enough to make public transportation better and more efficient (i.e. new trains, train arriving clocks, improved stations, new – especially outerboro-to-outerboro – connections).
    *We have not been using parking fees, congestion fees, tolls or taxes as an incentive to drive smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.
    *We aren’t making our intersections ped-friendly enough (e.g. traffic lights with leading pedestrian intervals, better and better maintained crosswalk painting etc.).

    We have a long way to go. And I completely agree with the article in that in many ways we are a city-turned-suburb. We want to be in the city, but we don’t want to give up our suburban amenities, be it a big box store on the one hand, or access to a car, on the other.

    We walk in Manhattan, sure, but this is ~despite~ the transportation policy that has governed this city since the postwar era. We are still a walking city (at least in Manhattan) because we are an old city that has been hard to dismantle for the car. The most we have done since the Moses era is chip away at the car oriented mentality that has and still does reign.

  9. transalt says:

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  10. Fulton Mall is a pedestrian street mall in Downtown Brooklyn that runs on Fulton Street between Flatbush Avenue & Adams Street. The Fulton Mall Improvement Association [2] is the local business improvement district. Twelve subway lines and fifteen bus lines service the Fulton Mall area, and Fulton Street Mall has more customers than Madison Avenue.

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