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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Claim to the Sidewalk

Last night, the @placardabuse Twitter account posted an observation that a burning police van was parked on the sidewalk. It got me thinking. Streets are famously the contested spaces of protest and revolution, so it may be worth looking more closely at how those struggles are being fought within our public right-of-way. In the conflict over who controls our public space, there is a hierarchy within the streetscape driven by tactical considerations as well as the issue of who occupies the image of the street.


The first thing the NYPD seems to do when trying to "control" a protest is to keep the protesters out of the roadbeds. This has strategic aspects, as well as the potential for abuse.

Often this appeals to a traffic management justification. The transportation rationale implicitly prioritizes the movement of people cutting through the area in cars over anybody using the sidewalk, who becomes trapped on the overcrowded sidewalks. It sets the privileged minority who own cars in New York City above the majority who live car-free. It does also keep the roadways open for emergency vehicles to get through quickly.

Rapid responses may be critical to provide medical assistance for anybody who may be injured by a confrontation or stampeding from the crowd.  It also allows the police to mobilize their own resources, enabling them to respond with overwhelming force, both in terms of bodies and weaponry.
Former Mayor Giuliani once expressed this rather concisely:
I have a zero tolerance for riots. I, you know, took over a city that had two riots in four years and I had none. And they knew they couldn’t riot on me. And when I saw the people on the street in New York City, I said to myself, you’re breaking Giuliani’s rules. You don’t take my streets. You can have my sidewalks, but you don’t take my streets, because ambulances have to get through there, fire trucks have to get through there. People die when you crowd the streets of New York City with protesters. You can do plenty of protesting on the sidewalk.
As the statement by Giuliani shows, there is a hierarchy here between the "streets" and the "sidewalks." There is also a power of ownership ("my streets") at work here, and the protesters are merely allowed use of the lower status portion of the public space by those in power.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Forbidden Forest

I assume all kids who grow up in neighborhoods on the edge of wooded areas live in a land with made-up names for places defined by childhood imagination and fears. We certainly did. There was the Pretty Forest, the Forbidden Forest, and the Beaver Pond.  Ironically, the engineered drainage stream that formed the spine of our childhood wanderings, and continued into town as a major landscape feature, had a real name.  That name was unknown to us and unneeded.  It was "The Creek," with a sense of primacy that needed no description to distinguish it from others.


The names were passed along among the kids.  We learned them from older siblings and friends, and younger kids picked up the usage from us.  I don't know the origin of the name "Pretty Forest," which was the closest and most widely used of the wooded areas.  I guess it did look kind of pretty when you looked up at the sky through the trees, or when the leaves kind of, sort of changed color a bit in the fall.  The name "Forbidden Forest," on the other hand, seems to have arisen from parental prohibitions against going too far, and was almost certainly reinforced by the fear kids had about following the creek out of the woods into the open to get to the next thick stand of trees.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Not-So-Safe Streets

During the current global pandemic, there has been a precipitous drop in driving. Traffic has all but evaporated on New York City's streets. Meanwhile, sidewalks and parks are not providing enough space for people to walk for essential trips, including some basic exercise. Repurposing the residual street space for walking is an obvious solution, and one that is increasingly pursued in cities around the world. New York has been slow to follow, with the Mayor resisting the very idea until continuing to refuse to open streets became politically untenable. Under order of the Governor to do something, he initially opened a few random streets and posted lots of police officers on every block. Shortly thereafter, he pulled it, claiming the police costs were too high.

Public and political pressure continued to mount, expecially as examples continued to come in from other cities. Photo after photo of from other cities closing streets with simple barriers without a heavy police presence made it untenable to continue insisting that New York City was so unique that we could not open our streets too. Finally, another small number of short street segments were announced for an initial opening this past weekend.
The first day at the Oval only had a small hiccup. The barriers were placed at Reservoir Oval itself, stopping traffic after it had turned onto one-way streets, with no good way to turn back around. When the street openings were announced with their mileages, I wondered why DOT had not taken credit for the additional mileage from those side streets. The day before the street opened, my 8-year-old son was even thinking out loud on his own about where the barriers would need to be placed for the one-way streets. Just a couple hours after the Safe Street opening, the NYPD recognized and corrected the situation by bringing out additional barriers to intercept the drivers before turning onto those streets. Still, it was an inexplicable mistake for professionals to make.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Minimum Width

During this time of social distancing due to COVID-19, many essential workers are traveling by bike, and others use them for their limited excursions outside for exercise. A bike ride on the nearly empty streets easily enables social distancing, and generally feels safe as long as you avoid the wider streets that seem to attract reckless speeding. Where the social distancing gets difficult is on the bridges.

Most of the bridge walkways are far too narrow, as though they've been treated as the space left over on the structures, which people who have been left out are permitted to use. These walkways have long been poor connections for cyclists, since it is technically illegal to actually ride over them. The regulations ostensibly address the concerns about cyclists sharing inadequate space with pedestrians, where a wobbly rider might accidentally jam their handlebar into somebody's ribs.  The narrow width takes on a new dimension when social distancing becomes a safety imperative. Any essential workers who rely on the bridges to get to their jobs are forced into unavoidable contact with others.

But what if they met the minimum recommended width for a shared-use path?  As it turns out, a width of 10 feet, plus a two-foot shoulder on each side, provides just enough space for people to maintain six feet of social-distancing, as long as they both stay to the sides.  Obviously, this would be a bare minimum for social-distancing purposes.  It does not account for people walking side-by-side, which may happen if people in the same household go out for some exercise.  At any real level of activity, it seriously curtails opportunities for cyclists to overtake pedestrians.  Additionally, it doesn't account for the larger distancing that is advisable for people working out.

In practice, the minimum recommended width is often treated more like an aspirational goal, and the shoulder space is often sacrificed on bridges.  If the precautions of social distancing become a more regular concern that will be taken into account in design, it would reinforce and perhaps expand an actual minimum width for shared-use paths.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

An Alleyway and the Joker Stairs


In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

On Halloween, I watched the new Joker movie at a cinema in The Bronx. There has been a lot of discussion locally about the influx of tourists to "the Joker stairs," but as an urban planner, I would have been scrutinizing the details of the newest version of Gotham City anyway. As I noted in a review of Imaginary Citiesthe variations of Gotham over time show changes in the fears lurking in the dark places of our collective consciousness.

Joker almost entirely abandons any effort at developing a fictional Gotham City. With almost no alterations, it is unmistakably New York City. More precisely, it is the mythos of the "bad old days" of New York in the 1970s and 80s, complete with the 1981 garbage strike. Stylistically, it draws visual and acting cues from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a reference that is directly reinforced by Robert De Niro's character in the film. The details in the streetscape that were altered to recreate the appearance of New York in 1981, and even those that were missed, can be informative. The tagging on the subway and the porn titles on the theater marquees (channeling the Times Square's era of infamy) keep the sense of disorder palpable. Choosing this period was an effective way to capture the grit that has always defined Gotham in the comics and movies, something that has become more difficult as cities have been largely rebuilt into glossier places that are much safer. More importantly, it captures current anxieties about going back to the "bad old days."

The only significant real fictional change to New York's built form in this movie was the insertion of an alley into the old Deuce. Although it appears much of this may actually have been filmed at locations in Jersey City and Newark (places where commercial strips have not been as extensively redeveloped), there is no doubt this was a recreation of 42nd Street in the Time Square area. New York is not a city of alleyways, but the filmmakers revised the infamous streetscape of porn theaters to include one. As usual in dark urban fiction, an alley is a residual space where garbage collects and the retreating effects of society no longer reach. The opening sequence of the movie concludes in this lawless Gotham locale; we see the violent nature of this city as we get to know Arthur Fleck as a helpless victim before he transforms into the Joker. It is this attack that sets in motion the series of events that send Arthur spiraling out of control.
Arthur Fleck lying in the alley after he was attacked

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Priority Sign Repair

On September 17th, the New York Post ran a story about an overhead bus lane sign that was covered in chewing gum. The sign had gradually been accumulating gum for years, but the media attention soon brought this to an end (at least for the moment).

Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about the sign two days later. Then, sometime before the morning of September 23rd, a new sign was already installed.



Depending on whether DOT started processing a work order for the sign on the day of the initial news story, or the day the when the Mayor was asked about it, the replacement took a total of only 3-5 calendar days. With the weekend, that was a 1-3 business day response.

That is faster than stop signs are replaced in my neighborhood when somebody reports that a car knocked them down.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Barriers Against What?

There have been dire warnings recently that car manufacturers might try to exert their influence to take over city streets at the expense of pedestrians (again). A recent flare up followed the suggestion that some executives were considering the installation of gates at intersections to keep pedestrians from crossing against the light and interfering with autonomous vehicles. The backlash from urbanists was immediate: We should not repeat the mistakes of the past when cars were first introduced into cities. People should not be penned in on the sidewalks like cattle. Etc.

A couple of examples:

Caution is warranted, of course. The ability of autonomous cars to successfully navigate dense pedestrian areas is dubious, and some of the materials released by the auto industry have been outright frightening (see below). I agree with the need to be vigilant about the policies that may redesign our cities very quickly, setting new patterns that may hold for generations to come. In this case, though, it seems like a knee jerk response of the "if it's good for cars, it must be bad for pedestrians" variety. The idea surfaced, after all, as a solution to the potential problem of pedestrians interfering with the automated vehicles, which might become paralyzed if people deliberately walk in front of them, knowing that safety procedures designed to avoid injuring people will make them stop.


Nonetheless, I am fairly optimistic that automated vehicles can be leveraged to transform the places we live for the better, and I see crossing gates as an acceptable tradeoff. Likely enough, they could become a welcome addition to our streetscape.