Monday, February 9, 2015

Stolen Space and Leftover Space

The 52nd Precinct steals space from the community every single day. The inconvenience and the perception that the police lack respect for the law create an ongoing source of tension with the community the NYPD is supposed to serve. A review of the conditions surrounding the precinct demonstrates that parking could, in fact, be managed satisfactorily with a little professional attention and a basic level of discipline. The parking is, in fact, illegal, and the NYPD has an obligation to restore order both to maintain its own integrity and to relieve the burden on the community that hosts the station house.

Unlike many station houses in New York City, the 52nd Precinct has its own off-street parking lot. This is not a cheap piece of infrastructure, either, since it is largely on a deck over the MetroNorth Railroad. Additional exclusive parking has been created with parking regulations that dedicate the curb lane on the east side of Webster Avenue to the precinct. Yet this is not enough to keep the East Coast Greenway clear of parked cars.

These cars are parked on a shared-use path
that is part of the East Coast Greenway
Over the years, every commanding officer and the Community Relations officers have consistently said they plan to repave and stripe the parking lot to increase the amount of parking by reducing the space generally lost to an inefficient ad hoc layout, as well as drivers supposedly trying to avoid mud puddles. Yet after years, there has been no change. The only maintenance ever performed on the lot is to periodically fix the fence posts when drivers have damaged it again (a sign that is not particularly encouraging about the driving abilities of the officers who cruise the neighborhood all day long).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Poor Scoping Leaves Residual Space

It is encouraging to see New York City developing more sustainable stormwater management. Unfortunately, the recent bioswale constructed on Bronx Park East at Pelham Parkway earns a grade of "D" as an urban infrastructure project. Poorly scoping the project left residual spaces and diminished functionality, which will ultimately be more expensive and disruptive to address later.

The bioswale detains storm water that would otherwise increase combined sewer overflows
The hatched area to the right probably could have been unpaved as well

The hatched area at this end is also useless, leftover space
It should be an active space as a refuge island as part of the greenway connection

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dirty Heat and Ugly Streetscapes

In a city with transportation as efficient as New York City, much of the energy use and air pollution comes from building systems. The old, decrepit heating systems in many of the city's aging apartment buildings is a particular problem.

Many community activists focus their energy on trucks. The impacts of heavy vehicles traveling on streets with children is undeniable, and smart campaigns to improve the routing and safety of large vehicles need all the support they can get. The fixation on trucks to address asthma problems, on the other hand, seems largely misplaced. Refocusing some of that energy and attention on heating systems would do more to combat asthma, improve quality of life for lower-income residents, and reduce energy consumption.

Combating truck use is largely a futile effort, since many of these trips are necessary and relatively efficient. Companies have already done a great deal to optimize routing in the interest of cutting costs to improve their own profits. Federal regulations have already vastly improved emissions in recent years. There are certain investments that could make rail alternatives more competitive, and I do not mean to discount them. Yet these are mostly changes on the margin and require major investment. The benefits that would ultimately reach disadvantaged communities would be small and diffuse.

Rather than pouring all the energy into the invisible remaining emissions from the tailpipes of trucks supporting working-class jobs, it's time to focus on the buildings belching big black clouds of smoke over low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Targeted support to improve heating systems in old apartment buildings could be implemented more quickly and continued on an ongoing basis, with much better results. Every time one of these buildings is improved, the quality of life would directly benefit the residents, mostly lower-income, who have had to suffer from poor heating for countless winters.

As it stands now, many heating units actually fail in these buildings. Then an emergency mobile boiler is brought in, parked on the street, and connected into the building. The residents who suffer from the lack of heat are far more impacted than anybody else, not only by suffering through the cold by also by the way they are marked with a sign of poverty. You truly have a "poor door" when there's an emergency boiler sitting outside the entrance to your apartment building.

The emergency boilers have negative effects for others in the neighborhood, too. When an emergency boiler gets plopped down, the deterioration of the building starts to erode the public space in the neighborhood. These boilers contribute to poor air quality, remove parking spaces from use, disrupt street cleaning during alternate side parking, and create an unattractive space that may even feel unsafe for pedestrians walking down the sidewalk between the building and the boiler.

Addressing these building systems really should be priority repairs. Although far too slowly, there has been some progress, primarily by converting the buildings to natural gas. Not only are the new systems cleaner and more efficient, supplying them with fuel is less disruptive.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gas Stations as Corner Stores

Planners talk about the mythical corner store. It is generally accepted wisdom that residents should all have a place within walking distance where they can buy that virtuous "quart of milk." Yet, ironically, it is often the very same planners who are hostile toward the businesses that actually serve this role in many communities throughout the country: gas stations.

Sit and watch for a while, and you will see some interesting things at many neighborhood gas stations. Interestingly, at such quintessentially auto-oriented businesses, there is often a surprising amount of pedestrian activity.

In many existing communities throughout America, I have seen more walking trips to gas station convenience marts than anywhere else in town. Even in some dense city neighborhoods, I have observed gas stations filling a role where urban poverty has left residents with few retail options. This is much more an indictment of poor overall development patterns than a recommendation for gas stations, yet improving existing places requires dealing with them on the terms of their actual assets. Bemoaning deficiencies does not build up a place.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Seeing Differently by Traveling Differently

The way people perceive space differently based on the way they move through it has long been a fascinating topic. It is a rarity these days that I have a moment to put such observations into any kind of order, but the topic has surfaced for me twice in the past month.

The first was a realization of how differently Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx is seen by drivers on the Major Deegan Expressway and those who follow the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail:
Then the other day, @TransitSleuth had a quick series of tweets observing differences between people driving and those riding a bicycle when their route was disrupted:

 Common to both sets of observations is a richer level of detail at slower speeds and the narrowing of focus to the needs of operating the vehicle while driving. There are a few hypotheses to ponder with the tweets by @TransitSleuth, and it is a regret I lack the time and resources to undertake some rigorous research.

Hypotheses on factors that may allow cyclists to identify routes to divert around roadway closures better than drivers:

  1. Cyclists tend to take shorter trips. Therefore, they are more likely to be in familiar, home territory when encountering a roadway closure.
  2. Vehicular queuing prevents drivers from approaching the incident as closely. Therefore it is harder to identify the specific network links that are closed and need to be circumvented.
  3. Higher operating speeds narrow the peripheral vision of drivers. As a result, they have not benefited from views down sidestreets to develop as much awareness of parallel routes.
  4. Cyclists must engage in more trial and error to optimize their routes, which provides them with awareness of their alternate routes. Whereas arterial streets generally offer routes optimized to meet the needs of drivers, cyclists often must travel different alternate routes before determining which path best meets their needs for travel time, safety, and other factors. 
  5. Mode selection reflects attitudes toward time and speed. People who choose to travel by bicycle demonstrate a lower priority toward speed and a greater willingness to spend time on their trips, which would are traits that would also make them more likely to periodically explore alternate routes.

Of course, I can't really say to what extent any of this speculation is actually true. Perhaps I will have the good fortune of stumbling onto an academic who takes an interest. It would make for some great studies.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Journey Should End in Poetry

Are iconic places at passenger terminals obsolete as an organizing element? I was surprised that seemed to be the consensus of leading architects on a panel recently. With smart devices, it is increasingly difficult to ever become lost. The scale of modern life has grown beyond the perception of a singular focal point.

I don't buy it.

People still want to feel like they've arrived, and a specific image best captures that moment. The term "selfie" may be new, but the compulsion to take a photo in front of the Flatiron Building, the Eiffel Tower, and every other salient landmark is as old as the point-and-shoot camera.

Great passenger terminals are among the most compelling forms of art that civilization has ever produced. These massive structures transcend their primary utilitarian purpose of moving masses of people to become some of our most memorable civic spaces. It is the iconic point of arrival that makes them memorable.

Of course, many terminals do not rise above their mundane functions. Some become inhumane from a meanness of design or subsequent neglect. When terminals do achieve greatness, they create an intersection of architecture and poetry. They embody the place where memorable journeys begin and end, where people depart and are reunited.

No place epitomizes this more than Grand Central Terminal, where the clock is the heart of New York City. As Billy Collins expressed it in his poem "Grand Central," the city "turns around the golden clock." The poem has been featured by the MTA's Poetry in Motion program:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Filling the Void, Maintaining Sight Lines

When cars park too close to the corner, drivers and pedestrians often cannot see each other well enough to make safe decisions. To correct the problem, parking is frequently prohibited near intersections to improve sight lines, a practice sometimes referred to as "daylighting." Nevertheless, regulations cannot actually prevent the hazardous conditions from continuing. The public and even some enforcement agencies seem to have a low level of awareness or appreciation for the need to keep these locations clear, and the residual nature of these spaces continues to be problematic.

In an effort to improve the situation, enhanced markings are often used to reinforce the regulatory signage. Even with this effort to emphasize the regulations and create some illusion of occupancy, the space continues to feel unused. In an active urban environment, a space marked off for the sole purpose of a sight line really is, in practice, underutilized. The demand to make more intense use of it is probably inevitable.

The solution to these residual spaces is to provide them with uses that do not compromise the sight lines. To be effective and persuasive enough to continue installing them elsewhere, treatments must embrace uses that are appealing to the community.

The classic response is to install a curb extension, sometimes called a "neckdown." These rely on the curb as a physical barrier that effectively discourages parking. They also provide benefits for traffic calming and shortening crossing distances for pedestrians. A curb extension is an expansion of the sidewalk, creating more usable space for pedestrians, although they may recognize relatively little value in the extra panels of concrete. This solution is often complicated, though, by mundane engineering details like drainage or even traffic signal location. Capital costs can discourage or delay construction.