Saturday, July 26, 2014

Where Is the Plaza at Bay Plaza?

My family ends up out at the Bay Plaza shopping center in Co-Op City on a somewhat regular basis. Cinemas are becoming few and far between in The Bronx, and the AMC at Bay Plaza is one of our best options for a date at the movies. Despite all the drawbacks of the sprawling strip mall environment, it also remains one of our more convenient shopping alternatives for some needs. Like many others who frequent Bay Plaza, we get there by bus.

Unfortunately, the good money spent on bad design in Bay Plaza does not create a positive sense of place. It just makes transit passengers and the pedestrians from Co-op City feel second class. It makes the place less attractive and functionally inferior for shoppers who arrive by car as well.

There is no coherent network for internal pedestrian circulation.  Everything has been designed to move cars in and out of the parking lots, resulting in sidewalks that are narrow and often disconnected, as well as poorly designed crosswalks.  The transit stops have been dropped in as an afterthought, and are further challenged by their location on private property. Even for those who drive, getting between stores, restaurants, and entertainment is not particularly pleasant. Bay Plaza has put some attention into its landscape architecture in recent years (although there is room for great improvement for stormwater management with the endless acres of pavement!), but what it actually needs is an urban designer.

Nice landscaping.
Where's the sidewalk?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Simple Dirt Path

This is a well-worn path on Needham Avenue where the sidewalk is missing. 

Needham Avenue is an underdeveloped street; it hasn't been built to its full mapped width, and the sidewalks have not been built. The rocks and trees offer a more scenic quality where there would normally be paved spaces. The narrower street offers shorter crossing distances, and those same rocks and trees act to calm traffic. 

Of course, this path subjects people to an uneven surface. This is of little consequence for most pedestrians on a typical day, and the mud when it rains isn't even that large an issue. Snow is substantially worse. For people with disabilities, it poses a larger problem still, which could significantly limit their mobility.

This street functions well with its narrow width. It would be amazing to see it simply improved with adequate sidewalks while preserving the trees and rocks. To really make the most, just add a couple of nice little rain gardens or bioswales.

View Larger Map

Friday, July 4, 2014

Conflicted Crosswalks: Hudson St and Christopher Columbus Dr

The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Columbus Drive in Jersey City has real potential to someday become a great public space at a lively, multimodal intersection. For now, it is a fragmented set of residual spaces with a traffic design that is inconvenient and uncomfortable for pedestrians and bus passengers. This is a case where excess concern about pedestrian-vehicle conflicts, combined with decisions to prioritize motor vehicles and a failure to realize that vehicular volumes never materialized, has resulted in a compromised pedestrian network that simply does not work properly. Let's look at how we can put it on a path toward realizing its potential.

This irregular intersection has only modest conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles. That is largely because the vehicular volumes are really quite light. Nevertheless, at this set of intersecting roadways, pedestrians are instructed to follow an extraordinary detour across several different crossings to avoid the potential conflicts with turning vehicles. To further the inconvenience, one of the crosswalks on that detour route has an unusually short pedestrian signal time.

This poor treatment of all the pedestrians who walk through the area is unnecessary, and it sets the wrong priorities by favoring motor vehicles. The whole confluence of intersecting streets should be reevaluated, and in the process it should be possible to create a whole new public space.

The crazy detour really is unnecessary. The conflict this whole situation was designed to avoid is so minor, it really seems unusual that the crossing was prohibited at all. Typical intersections throughout Jersey City and just about everywhere else have worse turning conflicts than this. With a close review of the signage that has been installed, the motivation can be discerned, but the aspect of the design that raised the concern is not only unnecessary, it creates a risk of vehicular collisions.

The pedestrian crossing is prohibited at this location because southbound Hudson Street has two right turn lanes.

The vehicles turning from the second lane would pose a real threat to pedestrians crossing the street, so in an attempt to maintain safe conditions for the pedestrians, the engineers attempted to remove them from the mix.

Despite the efforts of the engineers, the pedestrians who frequent this location exert their independence and continue to cross illicitly. By and large, they have little difficulty. Nevertheless, the apparent conflicts should be resolved, and can be resolved in a way that is much more satisfactory.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Wilderness

New York City Nature Preserves

By the time we can speak of preserving and protecting wilderness, it has already lost much of its meaning: for example, the Biblical meaning of awe and threat and the sense of sublimity far greater than the world of man and unencompassable by him.
"Wilderness" is now a symbol of the orderly process of nature.  As a state of the mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities.
- Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia 

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Urban Triage" on Our Streets?

With the number of pedestrians and cyclists who get killed on our streets every year, you might think that "Urban Triage" was a reference to the aftermath of vehicular violence. It sounds like it could be part of New York City's "Vision Zero" campaign. Instead, it is a term Jeff Speck uses in Walkable City. He attributes the phrase "Urban Triage" to his mentor, Andres Duany, and he recommends it as a way to determine which streets are deemed worthy of saving. The idea is that resources are limited, so projects should be focused on the streets that have the most potential:
Only the "in" streets are to receive walkability improvements like safer traffic patterns, street trees, and better sidewalks.
Before I sound too critical about Speck's recommendations for prioritizing downtown streets, I want to emphasize that Walkable City has been very effective at sparking public interest around the need to design streets that support pedestrian activity. My views align with Speck's far more than they diverge, especially in the earlier portions of the book where he synthesizes many of the current efforts underway around the country and beyond to understand and improve pedestrian conditions. Overall, it has been very positive that Speck has brought so much attention to the need to improve pedestrian conditions and put real effort into developing active transportation networks.

Nevertheless, as Colin Dabkowski in Buffalo recently noted, there are some real problems with Speck's approach. Dabkowski is right that social equity needs to be at the forefront of our efforts to improve cities, and he is right that Speck's writing does not lead the discussion in that direction.

Speck posted a response, where he claims that these concerns are unfounded, that his critics simply failed to understand him. Speck's tone is dismissive (he accuses Dabkowski of not fully reading his book), but Speck's response ends up reiterating some of the basic problems with his planning approach.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Residue Clogging the Bus Lanes

Creating a dedicated bus lane requires the displacement/destruction of the pre-existing uses within that right-of-way. Those uses almost always have a lower social value than a bus lane, and often so much so that those uses can actually be detrimental to the quality of life in a neighborhood. Nonetheless, the existing uses are fully enmeshed in the daily lives and habits of the community. That's why change can be so very hard, even when the results may be so clearly beneficial.

When the change in use prevails, it is rarely an immediate, complete transformation. Residues of former uses remain. An examination of those residues can be quite enlightening. Change exposes hidden sources of power. While illicit exploitation of street space has occurred in these locations for a very long time, the new conflicts created by the bus lanes bring the activities new exposure. Part of what becomes exposed is the accommodation of the City's enforcement apparatus. Far from random occurrences or oversights by busy departments, the pattern of enforcement demonstrates a set of cultural priorities. In the case of the bus lanes, what shows through is the prioritization of a car culture above the rule of law or the needs of the citizens who rely on transit.

The consistent failure to address violations by commercial businesses that encroach on the bus lanes demonstrates an informal policy that accepts the appropriation of public space by these businesses as a supposedly reasonable practice to provide what is viewed as an important service on constrained, urban sites. This is a value judgment that puts the interests of a car culture (which is the minority in New York City) above the needs and rights of the residents who take transit and walk in the area.

This car wash blocks the bus lane all day, every day
At the Vision Zero town hall meeting at the Bronx Library Center on April 1, there were repeated complaints about problems with NYPD's uneven enforcement on our streets. Among the specific complaints were auto drivers using the bus lanes, and commercial businesses taking over portions of streets and sidewalks. High-level NYPD officials were there and assured the audience that these problems would be taken seriously. Unfortunately, there has been little sign of improvement.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Growing Public Space from Grove Street

There is some exciting news that Jersey City may extend the public space from the plaza at the Grove Street PATH station further up Newark Avenue.

The plaza at the Grove Street PATH station

The existing plaza has already closed the easternmost block of Newark Avenue to traffic. Closing another block to traffic could make Newark Avenue part of an emerging trend of converting historical main roads into pedestrian space. The new plazas in Times Square are the prime example. Dating back to pre-colonial times, the trail that became Broadway was the main route up the island of Manhattan and beyond. Over time, its importance as the main traveled way waned as other routes were designed and constructed to standards more specifically meant to move vehicles, while local activities continued to crowd onto Broadway. Today, at Times Square, Broadway has been interrupted as a traveled way entirely. The social activities have asserted themselves as a place and the land has been converted into public plazas.

Streets experience a continual conflict between going and staying. Strips of land are transformed into active ways through the practice of travel, but the travel activities must push aside other uses that might utilize the space. Roads have been characterized as non-places. This is appropriate in a way, since places are spaces where people stay. The road or street is the space people use to leave.