One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

January 29, 2007

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).

Cars, Not The Disney Movie

January 12, 2007


An article in today’s Times about who drives into Manhattan reveals some surprising facts: contrary to popular myth that most people are coming from the suburbs, in fact more than half of all commuters are coming from the boroughs. Once this little myth was busted, it suddenly seems rather obvious. People from Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island have a plethora of relatively comfortable commuter options, while people in Bayside Queens don’t.

Meanwhile almost all the major transportation projects currently under consideration would further improve the suburban commute and do virtually nothing for people who actually live in New York City. To wit: Moynihan Station would be built mostly for New Jersey Transit. The new Calatrava Station at Ground Zero is for PATH commuters (New Jersey again). Long Island Railroad is supposed to finally have a connection at Grand Central, etc. We’re talking billions of dollars of investment.

Just to play the contrarian for a moment, this new traffic info sheds a rather unflattering light on the idea of congestion pricing, a hotly debated topic of late. If half of all commuters are concentrated in areas of New York City where there are few public transit options, none of them very good, does congestion pricing hit middle class and working class people disproportionately?

Groovy Graphic

January 9, 2007


This graphic is not to be missed, and I almost did! Yesterday the Times reported on the fact that transportation activists fought MTA about the Fulton Street Transit Center and won. I had been critical of this project, which is so important to the revitalization of Lower Manhattan, because it backed away from fixing some aspects of the tangle f**k of subway lines that connect underground while spending huge amounts of money on architecture. No objection from me about grand architectural gestures, and even in its scaled back form is a lovely design by Grimshaw, but my point was, let’s not lose sight of the point: transportation.

fulton.pngEven better than glossy renderings is a groovy graphic (really, it’s more like animation) the Times has put together showing how a passenger will traverse the Fulton station, and connect all the way to the Calatrava PATH station at Ground Zero. In otherwords, this shows how the the transit hub will actually be used by people, not just as a piece of eye-candy. Click here for the Times graphic.

Walking It Off

December 6, 2006


Now here’s a Times article made to order for Polis. British author Will Self (The Book of Dave, Junk Mail) flies to New York, and WALKS from JFK airport to Manhattan, with a reporter and photographer along for the trek. What makes this journey such a perfect fit for my little mission here at Polis is Mr. Self’s appreciation for the city, and he even uses the word polis!

…pressing onward and over the Brooklyn Bridge, looking with satisfaction at what he pronounced “the greatest man-made vista there has ever been … instead of looking at individual buildings, it makes more metaphorical sense to think of New York as one enormous chunk of masonry that has been cut up and carved away. It says, ‘This is the ultimate polis, through which humans move like nematodes.'”

Not sure how many nematodes actually walk upright, which is of course the best way to experience a city, as Mr. Self so eloquently points out. In addition to the map there’s also a slideshow. Check it.

Ghost Bikes

November 26, 2006

An activist group has erected memorials to bicyclists who have been felled in traffic accidents. The project is called Ghost Bikes. The above pic was taken by NYT photog Fred R. Conrad of a memorial at Lafayette and Houston for 12 dead cyclists (an intersection I must admit to riding through with little regard for traffic). Click to see NYT slideshow.

The Green Apple

November 22, 2006

ny_pie.jpgThe Architect’s Newspaper has a series of articles about New York, all trying to answer the question, How Green is The Big Apple? Given the density and the most heavily used public transportation system in the country, NYC consistently ranks high on “sustainability” lists. But for anyone who lives here, this hardly feels like “green” living.

The Architect’s Newspaper offers some pretty comprehensive coverage (some are clickable, others are not):

There’s also really great thumbnail graphs that tell the quick and dirty story (no pun intended), such as how many green buildings New York has compared to other cities (Atlanta was high on the list, a surprise to me), open space, and other “green” criteria. This is a must-read.

Bike Sheds

October 23, 2006


Straying off the NYC campus for a moment, The Building Centre in London is presenting new architectural designs for bike sheds. Perhaps Cooper Hewitt or some other New York museum would stage the exhibit here. Just a thought.

Shed Your Preconceptions [Telegraph]