- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.DO2JBejM.dpuf

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.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Whalen Park - Activating the Subway's Leftovers

Hard-working neighborhood volunteers hosted the 2nd Annual Halloween Festival in Whalen Park in The Bronx on Saturday. Again this year, a small park that often seems to be little more than a lonely paved area with benches and some under-appreciated landscaped edges was transformed into a vibrant center of community life.

Seeing the park living up to its potential (see more photos at bottom), if only briefly, brought to mind how the quiet neighborhood corner at Perry Avenue and East 205th Street became a public park in the first place. Leftover property from the construction of the Concourse IND subway line sat vacant for many years. Ultimately, Robert Moses put it into use as a park, as he did with numerous similar locations throughout New York City.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Spiky Spaces

Uses considered undesirable often take hold in residual spaces. Eschewed from places with stronger controlling uses, marginal activities settle into residual spaces. Where older buildings have deep window ledges, for example, the space left over on the ledge becomes a residual space. The space may lend itself to seating, yet the owners, managers, or tenants of these buildings often do not want people sitting in front of their windows (for various reasons). To address the situation, they attempt to make such residual spaces inhospitable. In the case of window ledges, this typically takes the form of spiky strips that make it too uncomfortable to sit (without creating the liabilities of actual physical injury).

It is always worthwhile to look at these reactions to reexamine the nature and potential uses of the residual space. Are the concerns justified? Can the attributes be reframed as an asset, or if they cannot, can the defensible posture become more embracing of the public?

In the case of the windows:

  • What are the specific concerns about seating (potential to break the window, obscuring displays, people sitting there who may bother potential customers)?
  • Is there a way the business could use the seating to become an actual amenity to customers and a way to help attract more people inside?
  • If seating cannot be used as an asset, and it becomes necessary to assume a defensive approach, are there less hostile ways to occupy the space? Could sculptural forms be used to add some public art? Perhaps an art installation could even be tied into the marketing brand of the establishment.

The marginal activities attracted to residual spaces may often fall into hostile forms of mitigation, but taking the time to understand them can often lead to rewarding new ways to engage the public and improve the quality of the overall place.


Observation of the day - a planter can be a productive way to occupy recessed window spaces:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Looking at Landscapes of Work

Twenty years ago, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time by J. B. Jackson was published. I didn't read the book for the first time until a few years later, but it has become a text that I always enjoy returning to reread. It still feels relevant in a way few books do after a couple decades have passed.

The year Jackson's book came out, I was living in France. I was raised as the son of a Steelworker in a small, industrial city in Oregon; spending a year of high school as a foreign exchange student was a rare opportunity for exposure to European culture and urban life. Like so many other Americans who have stayed in Europe, I felt the allure of dense urban neighborhoods. Like many others, most of my experience was also focused on historic city cores, middle-class neighborhoods, and scenic countrysides. I had such down-to-earth experiences as shopping at Carrefour, and I had some working-class friends at the school I attended. But I was not living in an HLM and I saw relatively little of the cit├ęs industrielles. Certainly what impressed itself most heavily on me was the contrast between the walkable, transit-rich, middle-class places I encountered and the sprawling, largely industrial, working-class landscape where I had grown up.

The idea of emulating European urban neighborhoods certainly merged with the American ideal of social mobility. My parents worked hard to provide me with opportunities; I was supposed to work hard to achieve a higher standard of living than they had. So as a planner, that naturally seemed to translate into improving neighborhoods along the lines of the desirable European middle-class models I had seen. Of course, aspiring to remake American cities more like European precedents has been a prevalent trend in urban planning since long before I was inspired to become a planner. It remains a strong strain to this day, particularly when it comes to the growing push for better streets, with Copenhagen serving as such a strong model for bicycle infrastructure that "Copenhagenize" has become a term. 

Jackson provides a different perspective. Rather than looking to Europe for a model of what American cities could become, he looks at our domestic landscape to understand how it actually works. He concerns himself with the places where workers earn their livings. It is a poignant reminder of the diverse needs of complex economies and the inherent dignity of work.

For most planners, myself included, Jackson can be a challenging read when he begins an essay by saying:
I am very pro-automobile, pro-car and pro-truck, and I can't imagine what existence would be without them. But I have learned to be discreet in my enthusiasm: disapproval from environmentalists and other right-thinking elements in the population is something I could not possibly survive. (p. 167, "Looking into Automobiles") 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Public Space through Practice

Space becomes public, and can really only remain public, through the practice of collective power. The government can exercise its power on behalf of the people to acquire property, forcing unwilling private owners to surrender their land if necessary. Private property can also become public through adverse possession as a result of continual use. To avoid becoming dedicated to public use, some properties like Rockefeller Center that welcome the public famously close periodically to assert their private rights.

Yet the process can work in reverse as well. In the absence of collective power, property can stop being public, even if it is still ostensibly publicly owned. This happens frequently enough in cases of abandonment, when fences or signage prohibit the public from using a space the government no longer wants to pay to maintain. Uglier cases entail the appropriation of public space by private interests without resistance from the appropriate authorities.

That is precisely what happened at 3059 Bainbridge for far too many years. The adjacent homeowners blatantly enclosed a section of the public sidewalk to create more private parking for themselves. This was reported to the City at least as early as 2008, but it was not removed until a couple weeks ago. For more than six years, parents with strollers and others were inconvenienced as they squeezed through an ugly and uncomfortably narrow space between a utility box and a cyclone fence.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gardening Over the Driveway

Some urban residents just aren't ready or able to give up their cars yet. On small lots, the driveways can eliminate any front yard. No matter, you can still fit in a vegetable garden.

Just do like this homeowner; and make use of the space normally left over above the driveway. With a simple frame, the vegetables can climb and hang over the space needed for the car to pass.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Real Poor Doors

There has been a lot of discussion about the "poor door" scandal in New York City. The New York Times covered it in depth yesterday. Some developers taking advantage of affordable housing incentives have been segregating their below-market units from the more affluent residents with separate entrances.

As insulting and socially destructive as that is, this whole discussion does not do justice to the housing challenges of New York City's poor. The "affordable" units in the new buildings are still positioned at incomes around the city's median household income. This is not housing that is within reach of the poor.  This fact provides some support to the push back against the critics of this practice; many people just aren't that sympathetic to the insult to residents who could afford a typical apartment but have won the opportunity to move into a much nicer unit because they happened to win a lottery.

This situation is typical of the public discourse around affordable housing in New York City. There is attention and programs for the middle-class, with public debates back and forth about how much support professional workers really need and deserve. Meanwhile, the units that are inhabited by the working poor, who spend so much of their earnings to inhabit apartments with much worse conditions than new construction with a side entrance, are places that remain invisible to public discourse.

The poor have always inhabited the residual spaces of the middle class. Sometimes these were neighborhoods of speculative middle-class housing that were left over from a glut of  housing bubble,  ultimately becoming crowded ghettos as the houses were chopped up into apartments. Other times, and increasingly in New York City today, it is extra space in one- and two-family houses in neighborhoods where the working class moved in after the original middle-class owners moved on. These less affluent owners often can no longer afford the entire space for themselves as they struggle to pay the mortgage and maintenance on the structure. Many turn to renting out rooms for supplemental income. These are the illegal apartments that fill basements and cellars, and dangerously partition floors in houses throughout the city's sprawling residential districts.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Old Town in Salinas

A few months ago, I passed through Salinas, California for a funeral. I wish the circumstances had been better, and that I could have spent a little more time and had an opportunity to speak with some of the local planners. The relationships between the spaces along the Main Street corridor in Old Town seemed quite interesting.

The Main Street commercial core in Old Town is a compact area. This is due in part to its conversion into a sort of enclave. It encompasses a relatively short distance of Main Street that is effectively demarcated from the rest of its length. The busier arterial streets that flank the Main Street core also create some separation from the surrounding area. It is interesting to note that this length of Main Street is generally consistent with the "400 meter rule." The section from San Luis Street to its termination at the Steinbeck Center is a little under 500 meters. It is also significant that the Steinbeck Center terminates the vista and encloses this section of street more like an outdoor room.

While many planners who talk about walkable downtowns are quick to promote two-way streets as a sort of pedestrian panacea, it is interesting to note that the pedestrian-friendly area of Old Town is along a one-way section of Main Street. The use of angled parking effectively calms the traffic, as do the mid-block sidewalk extensions with pedestrian crossings. The traffic calming treatments could be applied to either one-way or two-way streets, although it may be possible to introduce angled parking on a second side of the street on some one-way streets that would not have sufficient width under a two-way configuration. A one-way configuration also has the inherent advantage of limiting the demands on pedestrians to try simultaneously gauging traffic coming at them from two different directions at uncontrolled mid-block crossings.

View Larger Map
The angled parking and the mid-block sidewalk extensions calm traffic

The mid-block crossings form a pedestrian axis that is more than just an extra place to cross the street between intersections. They align with pedestrian passageways through the block to parking areas on the other streets. In some cases, these passages provide additional store frontage or space for outdoor restaurant seating. It was not clear on my quick visit if the outdoor restaurant seating had failed, or if it was a seasonal use that hadn't started yet for the warmer months when I was there.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Creating Social Space at Summer Streets

Last weekend, my neighbor won a hotdog eating contest on 204th Street. It was a great use of residual space.

News 12 Bronx

Especially in cities, space is a four dimensional problem. Any space is comprised not only by the physical attributes of its length, width, and height, but also its location in time. Spaces can expand or contract; sometimes they can be set up and be taken down entirely. In the case of transportation spaces, they have periods of peak demand, which require more space that what is necessary during off-peak times. Normally, the full right-of-way remains in use for transportation at a low level of utilization. However, with active management and creative programming, it is possible to capture leftover space and put it to use for social activities. Enter Summer Streets.

The center of the Grand Concourse was closed to traffic for Boogie on the Boulevard

On Summer weekends, the New York City Department of Transportation, with considerable assistance from the New York Police Department, closes sections of streets throughout the city. Otherwise, these streets have sleepy volumes of traffic. Sometimes, they can become more prone to dangerous speeding with the light traffic volumes that present drivers with wide-open pavement to race across. Constraining the capacity of the street network has no negative effects on traffic, and may improve safety. It certainly creates the space for great activities that help bring communities together.

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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Legally Blocking the Crosswalk?

The first question on anybody's mind is surely: What kind of jerk parks in the crosswalk?

The more important question is: Why would New York City, a place that relies so heavily on walking, enact regulations to make it legal?

In 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) quietly changed the parking rules to allow drivers to block unmarked crosswalks at T-intersections.

According to the New York City Department of Transportation
it is legal to park in the locations indicated with red circles.
Source: NYC DOT

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Conflicted Crosswalks: The Grand Concourse

You know it's bad when they put up the You're-gonna-die signage.

Getting across the Grand Concourse in one piece can be a challenge. The combination of long crossing distances and multiple conflicting movements from split side streets gives turning drivers seemingly endless possibilities to take a shot at you. And virtually every car on the cross streets are turning (through traffic bypasses the intersection by passing below the Grand Concourse).

Even with the challenging physical conditions presented by these intersections, there seem to be some easy improvements that might help pedestrians. High-visibility crosswalk markings are one example. There may be opportunities to make the yield signage more visible to motorists and locate it to better influence behavior before drivers make their decisions. The signal timing should also be reviewed to give pedestrians a head start.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Leading by Example

Recent news has been worrisome:
Clearly there are some problems in the NYPD. Apologists will claim that these are just "a few bad apples." They're right, too, as far as that goes. These certainly are outliers, and the extreme hazards they pose to public safety are not characteristic of the vast majority of the men and women who serve in the NYPD. Nevertheless, they are a product of a culture of corruption that permeates the department.

In rare cases, there are people who suddenly go nuts without warning. More often, there are warning signs that have been ignored. If the NYPD had any basic level of discipline to hold its personnel responsible for obeying the law, many of these "bad apples" would be removed before their reckless behaviors escalated to a level that poses a serious risk to public safety. Increasingly, it appears that the failure to police the police is becoming a larger threat to safety and quality of life in the city.

As dire as all these news stories sound, there may be a reason for optimism. These problems are not really new. Cops have been getting drunk and driving for a very long time, so the fact these incidents are now making the news indicates progress in solving the problem. Instead of automatically driving the drunk drivers home after stopping them, more officers are now doing the right thing and arresting the criminals, even if they have a badge. Rather than trying to hide these incidents to protect the department's image, it appears the NYPD brass is releasing details to make an example and improve the department's integrity.

Commissioner Bratton has even voiced his concern publicly“I personally am very disturbed about the number of incidents in recent weeks that are part of a longer-term problem of inappropriate use of alcohol by members of the department.”

Hopefully there is a genuine desire to address the problems with the NYPD's culture. Changing deeply ingrained habits and attitudes will not come easily, and even with a real effort, Bratton may have his work cut out for him. At the same time, the problems are so severe, there is a need for outside intervention. There must be a backstop to ensure that illegal activities do not continue to run rampant through the department entrusted with such great powers. 

To be successful, though, it is not enough to focus on the extreme cases like drunk driving, major theft, etc. Commissioner Bratton has been a strong proponent of "Broken Windows" policing, and if there is any place that it is truly necessary, it is the internal discipline of the police. When illegal activities are tolerated among the police, the impression that they don't have to obey the law quickly sets in. The petty forms of corruption open the door to attitudes that result in abusing prisoners, brutalizing civilians who challenge authority, and driving drunk.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Bratton has any inclination of extending his "Broken Windows" zeal to policing his own department. His own history on the issue of illegal parking is not positive, and the uncontested stories that circulated when he changed command at the Internal Affairs Bureau suggest he is even reducing enforcement of petty corruption within his department. If nothing else, there is a real problem when the NYPD starts aggressively pursuing the churros lady in the subway while ignoring the fact their own personnel create serious safety hazards on our streets.

So let's take a little closer look at how the NYPD does sledding down the slippery slope. Officers come to believe they can get away with breaking the law because of something they call "professional courtesy." While they complain about the lack of cooperation from communities with a "no snitching" ethic, the NYPD has developed the same culture of maintaining silence about the illegal activities of their own. 

From the time they join the force, their daily experience demonstrates that they can break the law and their fellow officers will go out of their way to cover it up. Consider illegal parking. Off-duty officers throughout the city park not only in NO PARKING zones, but also at fire hydrants and in hazardous NO STANDING zones. Traffic Enforcement Agents aggressively ticket neighborhood residents for minor violations, yet neglect their duties by passing over these dangerous conditions all the time. Precincts receive complaints and file false reports to cover up the illegal activities.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Robert Moses and Buses at the Beach

The Orchard Beach Criterium
The blue columns of the bus terminal are visible in the background
Last weekend, my family stopped by Orchard Beach after brunch out on City Island. We spent a little time watching the Orchard Beach Criterium bike races, and then my son and I walked over to look at the bus terminal. The Orchard Beach bus terminal is a place I like to visit from time to time, because it isn't supposed to exist. Anybody who has ever heard of Robert Moses knows that he banned buses from his beaches to discriminate against the poor, right?
What most people know about Robert Moses are the stories Robert Caro wrote. Caro referred to Orchard Beach throughout The Powerbroker, his sprawling book about Moses, including nearly three pages describing the beach's development. He never mentions the bus terminal. Instead, he wrote:
During the 1930’s, Robert Moses reshaped the face of the greatest city in the New World… He laid great swaths of concrete across it. He made it grayer, not only with his highways but with parking fields, like the one on Randall’s Island that held 4,000 cars, the one at Orchard Beach that held 8,000 and the one at Jacob Riis Park that held 9,000, that together covered with asphalt a full square mile of the 319 in the city. (p. 508)
That’s true enough. Orchard Beach has a huge parking lot. It's a vast expanse of asphalt (not concrete…) that is unbroken by any form of landscaping. Caro's allegations are quite clear, though; Moses built beaches for affluent residents with cars while prohibiting transit to discourage the poor from going. This story comes back over and over again throughout the book. A couple of examples:
…he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low-too low for buses to pass. (p. 318) 
…enough of his Henry Hudson Parkway bridges were going to have a maximum headroom of thirteen feet and a headroom at the curb of eleven feet so that usage of the parkway by buses-which were exactly thirteen feet high-would be impractical. (p. 546)
His allegations about Jones Beach and the connecting parkways are famous. Yet none of it is really true. What is surprising is how prevalent these tall tales have remained with so many glaring problems. For example, buses are not "exactly thirteen feet high," and nobody with even a passing familiarity with vertical clearances for buses could take this writing seriously. The clearance at the Holland Tunnel, to cite one example, is 11'6". Buses have used the Holland Tunnel continuously for many decades.

Observing real life, rather than Caro's tales, it is alway fascinating to look at the transit facilities Moses actually created at his beaches. The bus terminal at Orchard Beach was visibly deteriorating from decades of weather and insufficient maintenance, yet the design was still clear. The facility was laid out to create a sense of arrival and departure while efficiently and economically moving throngs of beach goers. The little terminal was under renovation, finally getting some attention to extend its useful life to greet future generations to the drama of Orchard Beach.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tons of Passengers

New York City's major transit hubs have tons of passengers.


While "tons of [whatever]" is a common figure of speech, it is interesting to think about just how many actual tons of human beings are transported through the main regional hubs on a normal weekday.  Grand Central Terminal, for example, moves more than 17,000 tons of human bodies.

Just imagine if we replaced the clock at Grand Central with a scale!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Trailer Park Education

The New York Times recently ran an article about New York City's desire to stop using trailers for classroom space. It noted:
"As of a 2012 count, about 5 million students across the United States were being housed in 280,000 trailers..."
I wish I could say I was shocked, but our nation has allowed these deplorable conditions for decades. The anti-government rhetoric that took root in the 1980s changed the way we look at public education. The poor conditions the Times noted were the conditions of much of my own public education. It was not until I spent more time looking at older school buildings and reading historical documents that I came to understand just how much we have devalued our schools.

We no longer treat schools as the civic heart of our communities. We are not paying and honoring teachers as community leaders who inspire our future leaders. The buildings where we send our children have abandoned the use of architecture to communicate the importance of knowledge. You're lucky if the roof doesn't leak.

There is nothing new about this. Decades ago, my high school classrooms had multiple buckets to catch the water that leaked through every time it rained (and it rained very often in Oregon). When I was in middle school, I took some of my classes in one of those trailers. It was dubbed "the relocatable," although it was never relocated anywhere. It stood in the same place for over 20 years after I attended the school.

That trailer was scrapped in recent years. Students no longer try to learn in that decrepit shack, but the situation has hardly improved. Rather than building a new school or a permanent extension, they merely bought a new trailer a few years ago and plopped it down on another side of the school.

This stands in stark contrast to the way America once viewed our schools. Most people can probably think of at least one grand, old school that represented a major public investment in a solid building with proud architecture. The citizens who built those schools buildings had much less comfortable lives than we have today, yet they made the sacrifice to ensure the school was solid and looked important.

As an example, consider the early years of Albany, Oregon, when it was growing quickly and promoting itself. The early civic leaders viewed public education as a key to their boosterism. An 1888 book published to attract new businesses emphasized how well they paid the teachers. It compared how many months of school they provided each year and promised they were making progress for more. The school building was a key feature.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Old Institutions Need New Vision

This is not the type of intersection you want to cross with your children to go to the zoo:

It's not really the type of intersection you would ever want to cross to go anywhere. It's too wide, and has too many fast-moving cars making turns through the crosswalk while you're trying to get across.

Of course, there is nothing much unusual about this type of intersection. This has been a fairly standard approach to designing major streets all across the continent for decades.

What is remarkable is that much of the section of Fordham Road/Pelham Parkway that begins at this intersection was just recently reconstructed here in New York City, where the Department of Transportation has earned an international reputation for its innovative street designs. Sometimes the old highway mentality can be persistent, even in transportation departments that are at the forefront of change.

This vast and expensive reconstruction also exposes the outdated views of the major cultural institutions in The Bronx. The project was initiated and moved to the top of the City's priority list by the "Four Bronx Institutions." With their drive and input, the project completely rebuilt the frontage between the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, two of the four member institutions, so it really demonstrates the vision they have for their patrons and employees, the surrounding neighborhoods, and each other. That vision belongs in the dustbin of the past, but I am afraid we will be forced to live with this new construction  long into the future.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Connecting Neighborhoods Across Mosholu Parkway

Mosholu Parkway is a great shared civic space between the Bedford Park and Norwood neighborhoods. One of the aspects that first impressed me about this area was the groups of older men who walk together and talk on the parkway. Yet while the parkway is a place where the community comes together, it also acts as an inconvenience for movement between the neighborhoods.

There are some long stretches on Mosholu Parkway between intersections, which are the only locations where pedestrians may legally cross the roadways. At several of the intersections, pedestrians are confronted with regulatory signs prohibiting them from crossing at certain corners, imposing yet more limitations on their ability to get around easily.

These locations where pedestrians are prohibited from crossing should be changed. Prioritizing the turning movements of drivers cutting through the community over the residents walking between neighborhoods is the wrong choice. At these locations, the prohibitions appear to do very little to benefit the drivers anyway. The volumes of turning vehicles and pedestrians appear modest enough that allowing pedestrians to go where they want should not create any real problems with turning delays.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Meager Bus Stop

The Bedford Park Boulevard subway stop on the 4 train serves as a significant multimodal center, despite a complete lack of design or any attention to the comfort of the passengers. Looking at this site, three questions come to mind:
  1. Don't the passengers deserve to be treated better?
  2. Would better accommodations result in more ridership?
  3. Are there economic development opportunities at this hub?

The bus stop serves as a main transfer point for Bee-Line bus passengers from Westchester County connecting to the New York City subway system. There are also three New York City Transit Authority bus routes that connect here. Although it effectively operates as a terminal, it is configured as a few signed locations along the curb. The Bee-Line bus stops are located on the viaduct above the Concourse Yard for the subway cars, while the NYCTA stop is located next to a gas station.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Jobs to Junk

There may be no more depressing reminders of the structural imbalances in our economy than buildings like this:

This is a stark, physical reminder of the consumer economy run awry. Formerly an industrial building, it now houses a self-storage business. Instead of using our valuable urban real estate to employ residents to make the things we use, it is instead a repository for the over accumulation of a consumer economy that continues to buy things it rarely uses.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Conflicted Crosswalks: Washington St. and Columbus Dr. in Jersey City

This is the second in a series of posts about crosswalks with conflicts that threaten pedestrians. These are intersections located in neighborhoods that are not living up to their full potential, due in large part to traffic that is hostile to walking. As they exist today, these street corners are not neighborhood places; they are merely the residual space where flows of vehicular traffic collide. Each intersection has its own unique problems, but looking at several cases will help to identify some commonalities. This time we look at Washington Street and Columbus Drive in Jersey City.

One of my colleagues was complaining to me about drivers failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk near our office. He was particularly concerned that the traffic controls were giving left-turning drivers a left arrow at the same time pedestrians had a walk signal. This clearly creates a conflict (which concerns me even more for nighttime operations, given reduced visibility and the likelihood of impaired pedestrians leaving the bar on the corner crossing the street en route to the light-rail station or a bus stop).

My colleague and I both had an initial thought that this signal sequence would be prohibited by engineering standards. Yet when my colleague looked it up in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), it appears it is actually allowed:

Section 4D.04 Meaning of Vehicular Signal Indications

...1. Vehicular traffic facing a GREEN ARROW signal indication, displayed alone or in combination with another signal indication, is permitted to cautiously enter the intersection only to make the movement indicated by such arrow, or such other movement as is permitted by other signal indications displayed at the same time.Such vehicular traffic, including vehicles turning right or left or making a U-turn movement, shall yield the right-of-way to:
  1. Pedestrians lawfully within an associated crosswalk, and
  1. Other vehicles lawfully within the intersection...
...3. Pedestrians facing a GREEN ARROW signal indication, unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian signal indication or other traffic control device, shall not cross the roadway.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Driving Truck

This was my grandfather's truck.

I found this polaroid in a box of my grandmother's mementos after her funeral. It was included along with old letters, family photographs from 1905, snapshots of weddings and newborn great-grandchildren, my high school graduation announcement. 

My grandfather held many working-class jobs throughout his life. He worked primarily as a steamfitter, but he also spent his time as a truck driver. The truck took him away from home, and it took some of his hearing too. It paid the bills and put food on the table for his children back home. It was a way to earn a living, but in some ways it was more. In a way, it was a source of pride.

For a short man with little education, skilled labor was a way to stand out. It takes skill to become a steamfitter, and my grandfather stood out. Because of the quality of his work, he completed delicate projects like nuclear power plants. 

While it seems more mundane, more commonplace, driving truck requires skill too. Owners don't just entrust their investment in an expensive vehicle to anybody. Businesses that need their deliveries to arrive on-time and undamaged need some confidence in their transportation.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Work Below, Glide Above

Most people today have difficulty understanding the motivations behind elevated highways, especially along waterfronts. With luxury housing rising to take in the views, there is generally no hint left of the work that formerly dominated the waterfront, forming the demand and context for the highways. These unattractive structures, and the dark, foreboding spaces they seem to create below, can appear to be nothing other than wanton acts of brutality against the city. That is, unless there is some historical perspective.

The leisure spaces of the waterfront today bear no resemblance to the intense workspaces of the past. Docks with their stevedores and drayage once spilled out into wide, nondescript marginal streets. Vendors crowded along the street between the dock workers and the landlocked stretches of the city. It was an immense hustle and bustle out in the open air and the workers were all subject to the capriciousness of the sky.

The New York docks in the days of the square rigger.
New York Public Library

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Gentrification Will Be Televised

Some influential writers about cities have been talking about how TV shows contributed to the revitalization of cities. Over and over again, three specific shows seem to be credited with sparking a return to the city: Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City. The thing is, the city has always appeared as the setting for TV shows. When people embrace this narrative that is so factually incorrect, it serves as a window into the way they have perceived the city and approach it in their work to remake it. They are implicitly saying that what counts are places that attract the "creative class," and the experiences of working-class and minority urban residents simply don't matter.

Let's quickly dispel the myth that the city ever actually disappeared as a TV setting. I should note I am not the only person to observe the disconnect between the historical record and the return-to-the-city myth; David King had a blog post not too long ago. There were so many long-running shows, the narrative seems really quite puzzling at first. Here's a quick, partial list of older shows set in cities:
  • The Odd Couple, 1970 - 1975
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970 - 1977
  • Sanford and Son, 1972 - 1977
  • The Bob Newhart Show, 1972 - 1978
  • Barney Miller, 1975 - 1982
  • The Jeffersons, 1975 - 1985
  • Laverne & Shirley, 1976 - 1983
  • WKRP in Cincinnati, 1978 - 1982
  • Taxi, 1978 - 1983
  • Diff'rent Strokes, 1978 - 1985
  • Cheers, 1982 - 1993
  • Night Court, 1984 - 1992
  • The Cosby Show, 1984 - 1992
  • Head of the Class, 1986 - 1992
  • Perfect Strangers, 1986 - 1993
  • Full House, 1987 - 1995
  • Family Matters, 1989 - 1997
The shows that supposedly marked the return to the city don't come in until around the time of the end of this list:
  • Seinfeld, 1989 - 1998
  • Friends, 1994 - 2004
  • Sex and the City, 1998 - 2004
Since there were shows set in cities running constantly for decades, what is it about FriendsSeinfeld, and Sex in the City that is driving these perceptions? In a word: gentrification.

Before delving into more explanation, I think it would be helpful to simply watch the intros for Laverne & Shirley and Friends:

These were both shows about young singles living in the city, but the way their youthful characters experience the city has some stark differences. Laverne & Shirley shows its characters at work - in decidedly blue collar jobs. Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City were about the city as a place of privileged leisure for the "creative class."