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Re-imagining the streets

Cyclists are at the sharp end of a city’s infrastructure. When you cycle in a city you start questioning urban design, as those in the first industrial societies started questioning the set up that kept them in factories 12 hours a day for someone else’s profit.

A good city would have children playing in the streets and walking or cycling safely to school – so why is that so rare?  How can people shop or go to work without making the air dirty, increasing the noise and the danger for cyclists and pedestrians?  Why are the self-propelled such very second class movers in the urban space? It’s forced upon you that cars are taking priority, yet they, whether moving or parked, don’t make cities pleasanter.

No-one, including those driving them, likes cities to be jammed with cars. But while they are jammed with cars, few will cycle, pleading fear.  Cycling activists push for more investment here, a cycle path there, and in the city I live in we make some progress.  However, like all lobbying it is a long patient business dealing with politicians who have the interests of other groups to take into consideration – and may have their own pet ideas of what kinds of transport are desirable, and their own visions of the glittering city.

The “cities are for people, not cars” idea has been sloshing around since the 1960s and was most famously expressed by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  Now one of the rulers of the greatest American city, New York, has used her power to enact what many of us have been dreaming of by re-designing streets, plazas, pavements and cycle paths – and has made her city more livable.

NYC Streets Metamorphosis from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

This film by Clarence Eckerson Jr shows the alterations that have been made to New York since 2005 and to a cycling advocate they are as joyous a sight as unfolding flowers.

A paean to Michael Bloomberg’s administration, notably his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the film points out the great accomplishments in traffic redesign that gives over much more space to people on foot and on bicycle, with separate channels for cars. The film shows before and after scenes from places like Times Square, the Queensborough Bridge and Union Square.

With the change of administration at the mayoralty Janette Sadik-Khan has just left her post as transport commissioner , and now  Polly Trottenberg, the current Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, has taken over.

So here’s Janette Sadik-Khan giving a TED talk. She emphasises how quickly the streets can be changed with cheap materials and temporary re-structuring, so if one aspect of a plan does not work, it is not costly to amend it.

The work of a transport commissioner isn’t just about stop signs and traffic signals.  It involves the design of cities and the design of city streets. Streets are some of the most valuable resource a city has, and yet it is an asset that’s largely hidden in plain sight and the lesson from New York over the past 6 years is that you can update this asset, you can remake your streets quickly, in expensively, it can provide immediate benefits and it can be quite popular.  You just need to look at them a little differently.

This is important because we live in an urban age. For the first time in history most people live in cities and the UN estimates that over the next forty years the population is going to double on the planet so the design of cities is a key issue for our future. …..

The design of a street can tell you everything about what’s expected on it. In this case it’s expected that you shelter in place. The design of a street is really to maximise the movement of cars moving as quickly as possible from Point A to Point B and misses all the other ways that a street is used.

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We’ve moved very very quickly with paint and temporary materials. Instead of waiting through years of planning studies and computer models to get something done we’ve done it with paint and temporary materials. And the proof is not in the computer model, it’s in the real world performance in the street. You know, you can have fun with paint. All told we’ve created 50 pedestrian plazas in 5 boroughs across the city. We’ve repurposed 26 acres of active car lanes and turned them into new urban space.

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We also brought this quick acting approach to the cycling program and in six years turned cycling into a real transportation option. in New York.  I think it’s fair to say it used to be a fairly scary place to ride a bike and now New York has become one of the cycling capitals in the United States and we moved quickly to create an interconnected network of lanes.  …. We created the first parking protected bike lane in the United States. We protected bikers by floating parking lanes and it’s been great.  Bike volumes have spiked. Injuries to all users, – pedestrians, drivers, cyclists – are all down. 50%. We’ve built thirty miles of these protected bike lanes and now you see them all pop up all over the country.

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64% of New Yorkers support these bike lanes. This summer we launched Citi-Bike, the largest bike share programme in the United States, with 6,000 bikes and 330 stations next to one another. . . .The bikes are being used 6 times a day. And I think you also see it in the kind of riders that are on the streets. In the past they looked like …, Ninja clad bike messenger and today cyclists look like you know what New York City looks. Diverse, young, old, black, white, women, kids, all getting on a bike as an affordable, safe, convenient way to get around, quite radical.

I think that the lesson that we have from New York is that it’s possible to change your streets quickly, it’s not expensive, it can provide immediate benefits and it can be quite popular. You just need to re-imagine your streets. They are hidden in plain sight.

(I’ve transcribed the whole piece here).

We, the rest of the world, expect New York to do things in great style, from cocktails to the Velvet Underground, from skylines to intellectual magazines, and that goes for transport as well.  New York in fact had one of the earliest (1894) and the finest cycle paths. A beautiful wide strip of macadamised path. ran from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Coney Island,

ConeyIslandCyclePath18962

The path was never closed. It still exists today. In part. The return path was asphalted over and became a road. The Ocean Parkway is now a multi-lane highway, with a slim bike path and a separate walking path. Both paths have to cross over a great many roads, with priority now granted to cars.

The fate of that cycle path – partly turned into a multi-lane highway, its remnant a narrow strip, and the priority granted to cars – has been the story of cities in the last one hundred years. The cars and their attendant infrastructure took over.  It’s a big push back – but it is happening.

I’m viewing this across the internet.  I was in New York once for 3 days, 20 years ago.  Are there any visitors to this site who have seen these wonders with their own eyes?