Reinventing the Apple

Greening New York

Feb 28, 2008
Outside Magazine
Green Technology

   Photo: Illustration by +ISM

The Ten-Second Take

"Only New Yorkers know what they need, but every city is going to be looking for innovations like these in the future—whether they want to or not. New York's just getting a jump on things."
—TOM POTTER, mayor of Portland, Oregon, the most bike-and-pedestrian-friendly metropolitan area in the U.S.

Recently, a New Yorker (let's call him Tim) was forced off a sidewalk by a double-wide stroller, a large dog, and an elderly pedestrian all traveling abreast. So he shimmied between parked cars, nearly collided with a bike messenger going the wrong way up a one-way street, and walked through the exhaust-choked margin of the avenue while fantasizing about a future in which New York City's clogged streets are reconfigured in favor of pedestrians and cyclists. A pipe dream? Nope, and you can thank advocacy/watchdog group Transportation Alternatives.

New York is a walker's city, but its streets, which represent 85 percent of its public space, are monopolized by the fume-spewing, driving minority. "For so many years, the streets have just been for cars, like NASCAR speedways," says Paul Steely White, TA's executive director. "We're trying to reclaim the city for the people." How? Well, thanks in part to TA's dogged pursuit of transportation reform, the city recently took a major step forward by retaining the services of the godfather of anti-automobile urbanism: Copenhagen-based urban designer Jan Gehl, whose Gehl Architects has helped draft plans for Stockholm, Melbourne, and, most famously, London. Gehl is now in the midst of an American invasion, having signed on to consult not only for New York but for Seattle and, possibly, San Francisco. The first step, he says, is getting people to think anew about urban life. "We can talk about it in terms of ingrown habits," he says. "Many people don't ask for changes because they don't know that changes are possible."

But NYC's hiring of Gehl's team is indicative of a general upsurge in both awareness of the need for change and the city's willingness to take action. In April 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled PlaNYC 2030, an ambitious 127-point strategy for the greening of the city, including ample transportation and public-space reforms. Already, pilot projects have been implemented all over New York to show people what the near future might look like: new painted, protected bike lanes on Ninth Avenue; dedicated bus lanes in Midtown; countdown signals at crosswalks; HOV/bus lanes on the Manhattan Bridge; landscaped pedestrian islands in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza; a lot more bike racks.

And even Bloomberg's controversial proposal for a London-style congestion charge ($8 to drive into Manhattan) has its supporters. According to White, "A year ago, congestion pricing was impossible, all this other stuff was impossible, but now it's a very fluid situation, and that's exciting." Gehl sees progress, too. "In New York, they are beginning to ask the right questions," he says. "What do we have cities for? Is it for getting from A to B or is it for developing the culture?" In his estimation, New Yorkers already know the answer: "The 21st-century lifestyle has arrived in New York, but, apart from the great parks, the spaces have not been developed to accommodate it. Yet."

Pedestrian Plan
1. I'M WALKIN' HERE!: Even, level sidewalks should be at least 20 feet wide to allow ample room for pedestrians and enough space for people to stop and chat or look in shop windows without causing a pileup.

2. BIKER ALLEY: Creating a safe, welcoming environment for city cyclists begins with bike lanes painted a noticeable color (green in the Manhattan and Brooklyn pilot projects) and separated from traffic by parked cars or flexible bollards where possible.

3. NO PARKING: Free and cheap parking will have to be severely cut back. "You can essentially store your property in this public space that could be used so much more productively," says White. Selective removal of on-street parking will discourage car use and recapture space for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, bike parking, plantings, sitting areas, and even taxi stands.

4. EXTRA PROTECTION: Extending the medians through the crosswalks, in effect creating a protective bracket on the side of the crosswalk exposed to traffic, keeps pedestrians safe, gives them a mid-crossing refuge, and keeps traffic from cutting too close to the medians. Bollards serve as both a visible marker and physical barrier.

5. A WIDE SWATH: "We need to have extended, exclusive pedestrian crossing time," says White, "so people aren't molested by turning vehicles." Crosswalks should be clearly and uniformly marked, with signals recalibrated to a walking rate of 2.5 feet per second to give enough time to the elderly, young, and disabled.

6. LOOKOUT: The installation of both red-light and speed cameras, particularly in high-traffic areas, will keep motorists to slow, pedestrian-safe speeds.

7. LOUNGE AREAS: Encouraging cycling will require more bike racks and bike parking; making the streets safer for pedestrians will require more bollards and better lighting for sidewalks; and benches, tables, and other places to watch the world go by will foster community in public spaces.

8. STRIP GARDENS: Raised and widened medians with plantings serve as refuge, help "calm" traffic, and give the street a boulevard-like feel.

9. CURB ENTHUSIASM: "Bumping out" intersections with curb extensions and bollards (rigid three-foot posts) means safer streets, narrowing crossing distances, making pedestrians and cars more visible to each other, and keeping traffic in line. They should feature on the corners of high-traffic streets.

Filed To: Culture, New York City