Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is There a "One-Way Epidemic"?

Recently, City Limits ran an op-ed by architect John Massengale about the need for safer street design. Under the photo at the top, the caption read: "First Avenue in Manhattan. Avenues used to run two-way, which is safer for pedestrians, but were mostly made one-way, to make life easier for drivers." This argument was elaborated in detail in the text. This week, Cap'n Transit followed up on his blog, extending the campaign against one-way streets.

These are familiar arguments. After beginning a discussion a while ago about one-way streets, it was suggested that I refer to "The One-Way Epidemic" section in Walkable City, which makes these same claims. These pieces all serve as good examples for discussion purposes. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to redesign New York City's streets to be safer for pedestrians, and I share the majority of the views of these safe-street advocates. I find some areas of common ground regarding one-way streets, as well, but it is useful to draw out the key differences as well as the overlap to illustrate why the rhetoric against one-way streets is overblown and counterproductive.

Let's start with the term "epidemic" used in Walkable City. This is rhetoric that invokes fear. The book explicitly compares the creation of one-way streets with an outbreak of influenza that killed 20 million people in 1918-1919. The not-so-subtle claim is that one-way streets are an imminent threat to your life. Avoid them like the plague!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Invasion of the Christmas Trees

Soon after Christmas every year, New York City is invaded by trees. It's no killer Christmas tree attack, but the discarded trees start to take over the city's public spaces.
Observing the places where trees end up can be instructive. It can expose differences in community attitudes toward public space, demonstrate which places and activities are sacrificed first, and expose other interesting relationships.

Discarded trees often fill in spaces along the curb between street furniture, maintaining an effective sidewalk width for pedestrians
Sometimes trees pile up in the curb lane, reducing some of the available on-street parking

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lunchtime Around a Construction Site

Construction in an area often illustrates opportunities and shortcomings of a place. Just keep an eye on how the workers use the area during their breaks.

Since they're less worried about getting their work clothes dirty, they're not bashful about finding comfortable places to sit when there aren't proper benches around. Their seating choices largely illustrate locations where there could be a general interest in sitting, since the desire to watch the crowds during lunch is such a broadly shared human interest. The street furniture they use can also suggest ways these features might be designed differently to deliberately incorporate seating in ways that could be both comfortable and appropriate for long-term maintenance.

The activity these workers bring can also start to activate a street in the interim before new buildings open. Class tensions surface at times between the working-class laborers and affluent residents and workers who usually populate areas with new construction. It is probably too optimistic to hope, but there may be potential for change by exposing these tensions. If nothing else, I find it positive to see the working class claiming some public ownership, if only temporarily, in parts of the city they increasingly can't afford.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

NYPD Urban Design

Over the past couple decades, the NYPD has come to play a major role in urban design, although it generally passes without much notice. The police are responsible for securing dense urban areas against the threat of terrorism, as well as controlling crowds and traffic during special events. As part of these efforts, they routinely install physical barriers designed to stop vehicles. In many instances, the NYPD directly installs barriers. In other cases, they provide the requirements for designers to develop permanent installations more integrated into the streetscape.

The NYPD literally has tons of concrete blocks, which can be moved around the city to create temporary barriers wherever necessary. They tweeted about their concrete barriers during the Pope's visit:
As a temporary measure used by the police, these blocks have a surprisingly high design quality. Cast with basic, inexpensive material, the white paint and simple "NYPD" letters stenciled in police blue provide a crisp, attractive look. These "temporary" installations sometimes remain for many years, as they have around the World Trade Center while construction continues. There are some benefits from the temporary precursors to permanent installations. It provides time to observe how the public interacts with these features. Hopefully observant designers take note of ways to use the barriers as multifunctional features that contribute to the enjoyable use of public space.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Desire Carts

This is not what "walkability" looks like when you watch flashy presentations by planning consultants:

Nevertheless, this is more representative of the lived experience of many communities that actually rely on walking than all those photos of people strolling with their overpriced coffee along cute downtown streets, before getting back in their cars to drive home. These are places where people practice walking for their routine needs. For many people, walking is not a neighborhood amenity, effort to save the environment, or personal fitness choice. It's simply the most practical way to get things done.

That doesn't mean it is easy and convenient, or even always safe. Often enough, people are walking in places that were not planned or designed with pedestrians in mind. Problems notwithstanding, the "walkability" of these places is a fact defined by their very usage.

It is precisely by identifying places where people walk, despite seemingly undesirable conditions, and then observing how they do it, that we can better understand how to make places where people will walk. By focusing on these locations, we also have an opportunity to improve conditions for the people who already depend on walking there while making it more attractive for even more people to join them.

One fascinating indicator of pedestrian activity in suburban-style development is what I refer to as "desire carts." They're odd clusters of shopping carts on the far edges of parking lots. These shopping carts accumulate where people leave them when continuing on foot.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Barricading Sidewalks

This week, the Pope came to New York City, and the NYPD worked hard to keep him safe, along with all those who came to see him. They planned ahead for the challenging logistics of moving perhaps the most high-profile person in the world through one of the world's densest cities, along with all the UN dignitaries who gathered to hear him, together with thousands of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse.

When the NYPD puts effort into something, it gets the job done. There is no question of hard work or commitment to results. The question is the priorities that get the NYPD's attention. While Christian love and police dedication were both on prominent display, the Pope's visit also demonstrated some of the important things the NYPD does not focus on enough. In the face of recurring traffic congestion in New York City, the NYPD is surprisingly nimble at closing entire roadways to keep motorcades secure while avoiding extensive delays for other motorists. As they describe it, they have it "down to a science." What they don't do well, despite decades of increasing attention by the engineering profession, is planning for pedestrians. In fact, most of the people who are affected in every corner of the city are really treated as an afterthought by the NYPD.

For the NYPD, when it comes to major events, pedestrians often seem like little more than obstacles to the motorcades. When the NYPD does turn its attention to the people trying to walk around, they seem to be taken into consideration only as crowds to be "controlled," or as "security threats" to be surveilled or excluded. If only a fraction of the attention paid to moving concrete blocks for cars and placing snipers on roofs was applied to maintaining appropriate sidewalk widths, the city would probably be safer. It would certainly be more orderly and comfortable.

Let's consider how NYPD leadership discussed its preparations. Posing for photos in front of a vast lot filled with parked police cars, the Police Commissioner bragged about "1,173 police cars, 818 tons of concrete barriers and 39 miles of metal and wood barricades" that were prepared for the Pope's visit to New York City. The department's twitter account followed up, highlighting the massive amounts of material they stockpiled around town. This neatly summarizes the NYPD's priorities: setting up barriers and moving motor vehicles.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Below the Roadway

In recent months, I have frequented very different places tucked underneath some of New York City's elevated roadways. It is a startling juxtaposition between the invisibly marginalized and the thoroughly gentrified.

Sometimes it amazes me that in one of the world's largest cities and the densest in North America, there are still places so isolated and hidden they seem like private places for the most dispossessed in society. Recently, I returned to one of these places for the first time in nearly a decade. It remained virtually unchanged.