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]

Trolley Follies

October 21, 2006

trolley.jpgThe Brooklyn Papers is reporting (via Curbed) that the planners of Brooklyn Bridge Park have nixed the idea of trolley cars before they’ve even spent $1 million to investigate ways to provide access to the waterfront, which is very isolated. I posted about this back in January (click here) listing it as one of three transportation alternatives that are good ideas but probably not gonna happen. It’s truly a shame.

The man who has rather obsessively been extolling the virtues of trolley cars, Arthur Melnick, says he has access to a dozen historic trolleys of the design that were so ubiquitous in Brooklyn from the ’30s through the ’50s. But no, it seems the geniuses at Downtown Brooklyn Waterfront Development Corporation — caving to pressure from NIMBYs in Brooklyn Hts. who don’t want “outsiders” tramping through their precious neighborhood via trolley car — say at best, there would be a trolley-like jitney bus.

“We could have a jitney [bus] that looks like a trolley, like they have Downtown,” said Hank Gutman, a DBWLDC board member.

For crying out loud, the 85-acre park taking shape along 1.3 miles of the Brooklyn waterfront has been 25 years in the making; it would be nice if people could get there without being insulted by fake trolleys or having to go through a dank underground tunnel from a far away subway station, which is another possibility under consideration.


What’s so irritating, using trolleys to connect to the BBP is actually a realistic proposal, as is pointed out in an editorial by the Brooklyn Papers. A trolley from Borough Hall to DUMBO and on to Brooklyn Bridge Park (which would also serve the Brooklyn Bridge footpath that right now is an ugly and dangerous entrance) is perfectly reasonable and practicable solution to solving access issues to several wonderful but isolated places.

mt03vano4c.jpgThe hugely talented folks at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (click to enlarge pics), in collaboration with ARO, have produced some amazing designs for Brooklyn Bridge Park (to read a great article about it by Andrew Blum inbrooklynpiers.jpg Metropolis magazine, click here), and I’m sure people will get there one way or another. But it’s just ridiculous to me that while cities all over the world are managing to build state of the art infrastructure, we can’t even get people from point A to point B using 19th century technology. It’s just mind boggling.

Parking Squatters

September 21, 2006

Today is International Park(ing) Day, reports Streetsblog, also known as a “parking squat,” where metered parking spaces are transformed into urban parkland. Above is a scene on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. Read more about it here, see more pics here.

Design Lament

September 21, 2006


Last night, while attending a presentation by New York architect Thomas Phifer regarding his design for the North Carolina Museum of Art, I struck up a conversation with a couple of people about how far behind the United States is when it comes to public space, urban design and contemporary architecture. The impetus for the discussion was the discovery that Thomas Phifer had won a New York City-sponsored design competition for street lighting last year. It’s a surprisingly sleek choice considering how nostalgic most street furniture and lighting designs usually are in American cities and towns, but in fact this design is only included in a catalogue of other approved designs and there’s no telling if any will be installed. So we got to talking about other examples where New York City is aesthetically lacking and not very user friendly. Take, say, Houston Street, which is undergoing a major renovation that, as of right now, doesn’t even include seperate bike lanes, much less a widened median for sustainable landscaping, a dedicated bus/trolley lane, additional pedestrian room, etc.

As the discussion progressed, we began to imagine, what would design aficionados in Amsterdam — people like us standing around with cocktails in hand — what would they be complaining about? “In the United States, they do X,Y, Z so much better.” We were stumped. What do we do better? The only thing we could come up with was commerce. We are very good at business, and everything about our cities is essentially geared toward smoothing the way for commerce and doing the bare minimum when it comes to that which does not directly facilitate transactions. What’s worse, this default method of operating can actually hinder the smooth operation of business, a point that was made recently by those in favor of congestion pricing. When Mayor Bloomberg was asked recently about the traffic problem in Manhattan, he dismissed it as a sign that business is good. That’s a rather narrow view of what is a serious waste of time and energy (which is bad for business), not to mention bad for people’s health. From London to Stockholm, other cities are finding ways to deal with traffic and make urban life better. New York should be leading the way in the United States, but even with a progressive mayor like Bloomberg, we seem to be falling further and further behind.

Gov’s Island: Open Source Planning

September 15, 2006

Now that all the bids for Gov’s Island have been scrapped, perhaps the most important piecegovsibus.jpg of undeveloped land in the Northern Hemisphere could become the first open source urban planning project. Kicking it off is The Built Environment, with a plan for a bus rapid transit system (which is much cheaper than rail service, for an explanation of that, click here) that would connect the World Trade Center to Gov’s Island, and on to underserved areas of Brooklyn, ending in South Slope (click thumbnail for larger view).


Second, TBE takes note of the New Globe Theater idea that’s being floated by the Castle Williams group. They have a site on the Island that is almost exactly the same dimensions as London’s Globe Theater and have developed plans to have Norman Foster design a New Globe Theater. Brilliant. But first, a master plan!

Casualty Fridays

September 15, 2006

crash.jpgThose happy-go-lucky kids over at Streetsblog have a post on Fridays called The Weekly Carnage, a round-up-o-rama of casualties and deaths — not in Baghdad — but in the New York region as a result of traffic accidents. Just a little sampler:

Death Missile: Airborn driver in Long Island crashes into second story of an apartment complex;

Bronx man dancing in street hit by bus;

L.I. girl out for ice cream critically injured.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the regular Monday wrap-up: Bridge and Tunnel dumb-f**k alcohol-related injuries and deaths.

Have a great weekend!

200 Miles of Bike Lanes (and nowhere to lock it…)

September 12, 2006

Streetsblog is reporting heavily on the city’s announcement today to add 200 miles of bike lanes over the next three years. I’m all for it. But once again, Chicago is kicking everybody’s arse when it comes to urban amenities. The city has more than just bike lanes, but a large downtown space to securely lock them at Millennium Park. Most of the time when I don’t use my bike for transportation, it’s because I don’t want to risk having it stolen. Not to mention, I had a rather nasty tangle with a taxicab door over the summer WHILE I WAS IN A BIKE LANE. To that end, the city is also pledging to launch a bicycle awareness campaign. Can’t hurt. Might help.

Breathtaking Inanity: Grand Transit Here, There and Everywhere

June 27, 2006

After decades of neglect, New York is suddenly in love with its monumental transportation hubs, even if all the grand architectural gestures in the offing won’t do much on the most basic level: make more people’s commutes easier.

Today’s installment of breathtaking inanity (the new irrational exuberance) takes note of three facets of this latest craze.

moynihan-station0.jpg1. Moynihan Station, in its third (or is that fourth?) design iteration, will cost $1 billion to turn part of the Farley post office building into a partial replacement for Penn Station across the street. The catch: the only tenant is NJ Transit, which will leave behind 80 percent of commuters who currently use the old Penn Station in the pit below Madison Square Garden. This makes absolutely no sense. The inanity of this was pointed out when an even grander plan was floated recently to move the entirety of Madison Square Garden across the street as well, thus forcing Amtrak and the rest to move into the new space. Even though this will take much longer to build and will be much more costly ($7 billion) at least it makes sense in the long run, but of course Gov. Pataki might quash this plan because he wants a groundbreaking before he leaves office on the long delayed Moynihan Station.path-station.jpg

2. Santiago Calatrava’s beautiful transit station design at Ground Zero will cost $2 billion and serve only those people who ride PATH trains from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan (so New Jersey commuters are getting not one, but two grand transit hubs built for them here in New York City?). Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely, lovely train station. No question about it. But here’s the rub: it will be connected underground to yet ANOTHER architecturally grand and very costly transit hub, the Fulton Street subway station, less then two blocks away, which brings us to the final point:

fultontransit.jpg3. The new Fulton Transit Center, run by MTA, is behind schedule and over budget even after the signature architectural element, a huge “oculus,” was reduced in size and – get this – the plans to untangle the clusterf**k of subway lines underneath Fulton were also scaled back. In other words, MTA is prepared to spend another $800+ million on a duplicative grand transit statement while backing away from the original intent of making the subway lines more rational for commuters … New York commuters.

Hey, I’m all for grand architectural gestures, WHEN THEY ALSO WORK FOR THE PEOPLE WHO USE THEM.

New Amsterdam Center

March 29, 2006

corbin.jpgI have a piece in today’s Times about the current owners of the Corbin Building — the Collegiate Church — who want to turn this historic Lower Manhattan building into the New Amsterdam Center. But it’s being taken by eminent domain for the new Fulton Transit Center. Not much to add to the piece, really, so click here to read it in full, and find out how those mild-mannered, tolerant Protestants of Dutch heritage are going to take it to MTA!


Photo: John Harrington Jr., left, and Casey Kemper of the Collegiate Church Corporation and the original staircase and railing from 1888 by Michael Flaco.