1: the fight
Retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacobs's vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles with their diminishing returns for our streets.
2: density is destiny
A 2015 study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) found that from 1947 to 2012, American taxpayers as a whole paid $1 trillion more to sustain the road network than people who drive paid in gasoline taxes, tolls, and other user fees.
3: setting the agenda
Successful urban density isn't simply a matter of tall buildings stacked next to one another. City residents require both space and privacy, green space and open sky, breathing room and room to run. How cities deliver their services must be organized in ways that can be maintained over decades without depleting their coffers or making neighborhoods and the environment inhospitable.
Instead of mailing letters that simply denied traffic signal requests, we posed a new question to these communities: What problem were they trying to solves? Were there other strategies that were not considered because they were not specifically requested? If the problem was speeding, we could look at the possibility of narrower lanes, speed bumps, and parking restrictions near the corner so stopped cars wouldn't block the visibility of crossing pedestrians.
Creative street design, not stop signs, could change safety on a street.
Part of the problem wasn't the policy or the goals but the branding.
4: how to read the street
Highway-size lanes induce highway speeds and lane-changing tendencies that go with them. Wide-open lanes provide more room for the driver of one car to wind up in another's blind spot. The biggest consideration in how fast people drive isn't the posted speed limit or how traffic signals are timed, but the street's design speed—the vehicle speed that the street was designed to accommodate safely.
Trying to address congestion by building more traffic lanes is like trying to prevent obesity by loosening one's belt.
Defenders of the private automobile invented the concept of “jaywalking” and created safety campaigns and educational materials for schools that reinforced an idea that streets are for cars—and that pedestrians should take responsibility for their own safety by fearing and avoiding the street.
5: follow the footsteps
Desire lines are a road map of opportunity, and they represent a challenge to the view of streets as places to move cars and the dogma that isolating people from the streets is the only way to protect them.
And sidewalk life isn't just about movement. In a kind of urban koan on New York City's streets, people sitting on fire hydrants and leaning on light poles, buildings, and railings daily make a silent but profound statement: there is no place on our streets and sidewalks to stop and do nothing. Yet doing nothing is paradoxically one of the animating forces in a city.
Walking is a complicated language. Unlike cars on a street, people on sidewalks are free to walk in both directions or in jagged lines. But among the billions of trips people make on foot every day, there are relatively few collisions and people are generally able to walk at different speeds, stop, and turn around without needing marked lanes or causing traffic jams or lethal pileups. People know how to read the sidewalk, and there are unspoken, unmarked lanes that people intuitively understand.
6: battle for a new times square
Yet our study reviewed data from 1.1 million of these cabbies' own taxi trips through Midtown and determined that traffic overall moved 7 percent faster than before Broadway closed.
With fewer people walking in driving lanes, the number of pedestrians injured in car crashes dropped 35 percent. The safety effect extended well beyond the plazas an injuries for everyone—including people in cars—plummeted by 63 percent.
In a Times Square Alliance survey, 74 percent of New Yorkers said that Times Square had improved dramatically. When they asked retail and business managers, 68 percent said the plazas should be made permanent.
Have we tried to convince everyone in New York City that the Times Square project would work before we took the first step—answered every cabbie's doubt and refuted every newspaper columnist's armchair analysis—it would have taken five years just to break ground, and even longer for the dozens of other plazas.
7: stealing good ideas
Urban ugliness is often a by-product of municipal structures and utilities that were built with function, not people, in mind.
While we accomplished a lot with paint and partnerships to make changes quickly and cheaply, we also set up new administrative processes that put the power of public space and its long-term management more directly into the hands of communities. The application program for these neighborhood car-free events reflected the model of our plaza program. It wasn't about simple empowerment—letting people ask for a plaza or a car-free street—it was necessary to establish a community management plan to keep the new spaces and events alive, and to maintain and pay for them.
8: bike lanes and their discontents
A Quinnipiac University poll found that 54 percent of New Yorkers said that bike lanes were “a good thing.” This was the first of many polls that would be released in the coming months, two putting bike lanes' popularity as high as 66 percent—higher than the approval numbers for most New York politicians. Judged by the polls, most New Yorkers either didn't read the papers or didn't relate to the controversy. What sounded like a chorus of opposition in the media was actually a small but determined section of the population. Influential news columnists also began to take up the issue, as headlines about conflict were replaced with kinder words like “Thanks,” and “Bicycle Visionary” from Times columnist Frank Bruni, who helped expand the media vocabulary.
9: bike share, a new frontier in the shared economy
Bike share should never be viewed in isolation as an alternative to driving or public transportation. Bike share works well when it serves both those who use it solely to commute as well as those riding to and from transit hubs. The 66,500 bikes in Hangzhou's system in China are specifically geared to solve the “first mile/last mile” problem to get people from their homes to the city's transit system. This is a big gap in many cities with lower but still moderate densities that could serve transit if residents had an effective means to reach bus or rail without driving.
10: safety in numbers
The first priority of every city should be the physical and psychological safety of people on the street. Hundreds dying on city streets would be classified as a public health crisis in any other field.
Both ideas of safety—traffic and crime—are served by the same quality: people, and their eyes on the street. Sidewalks busy with pedestrians are a crime deterrent. More people on the street—including on bikes—creates safety in numbers, a human system of indicators, signs, and signals.
What people fear and what actually threatens their lives on the street are rarely the same thing. What people see depends on how they get around, and what they believe makes streets dangerous hinges more on emotion and snap judgments than on data.
Most deaths were caused not by a lack of signals and signs; they occurred after people driving vehicles have ignored these controls or violated numerous other rules of the road.
Looking only at specific intersections can obscure high rates of serious crashes dispersed over many miles of a particular street. Intersection X may have the highest single number of serious crashes, but Street Y has far more people dying and suffering injury.
On streets with bike lanes, serious crashes are 40 percent less deadly for pedestrians.
One resident questioned whether painting a bike lane on the street would strip the street of its historical character—as if twelve people dying alone weren't enough of an affront to the neighborhood.
There is much hyperventilating about helmets in cities around the world, but there is no evidence that requiring riders to wear bike helmets is more effective in decreasing injury and death rates than the very real effect of safety in numbers—the cumulative safety effect of having more people on bikes riding the streets. On the contrary, there is growing evidence that cities with helmet laws succeed only in significantly decreasing the number of people riding bikes, reducing crashes but forfeiting the safety benefits of more riders.
As more people bike, their visibility on the street increases. When drivers see more bike riders, they learn to expect them, to anticipate their movements. They slow down and look around when they have to share the road, which also protects people who walk, completing a virtuous cycle. By the logic of helmet proponents, European nations like Denmark and the Netherlands, with vast numbers of cyclists riding without helmets, should see sky-high rates of head injuries. Yet they are far safer than other countries and are becoming only more so as the number of cyclists increases.
Just as there is often a vast difference between what people fear and what actually endangers them, there is also a chasm between what is safe and what feels safe. Safety isn't just an absence of threats on the street. It's also a feeling that people on foot, on a bike, or in a car have when they are recognized, respected, and securely positioned on the street.
11: sorry to interrupt, but we have to talk about buses
“An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars,” Peñalose says, “but where rich people take public transportation.”
12: measuring the street
Have you ever seen a car stop into a café for a sandwich, or window-shop at the boutiques in SoHo? Me neither. Cars don't shop. People do.
In a 2011 study by Transport for London, researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with shoppers in fifteen London commercial districts. They found that while people who drove cars to shop spent more on each individual visit, people who arrived on foot or by bus or the tube shopped more frequently and collectively spent almost five times more than those who drove over the course of a week or month.
In San Francisco, two thirds of merchants along Valencia Street in the city's Mission District reported increased sales after bike lanes and wider sidewalks were added in 1999.
Had we not worked fast and attempted short-term changes, we would have had nothing for New Yorkers to experience, to react to, and, critically, to measure how our projects performed. The lessons from one project led to the next and showed us that a handful of short-term bad headlines meant little in the life cycle of a successful street-changing project.
13: nuts and bolts
If transportation were covered in media proportionally to the actual dollar investment, building bridges and paving streets would be daily front-page headlines.
Raising meter fees for street parking can spell political suicide if done incorrectly, but cities can't afford not to bring their meter rates into the twenty-first century and set new expectations. Any board of directors that similarly lets prices stagnate—imagine an eternal five-cent Coke—would be rightly fired by shareholders. But cities must go beyond parking's potential financial return and reexamine how parking policy can be utilized as a tool for development and livability. Instead of diverting all the revenues to their general funds, cities could reduce the sting of increased fees by investing some of those resources in ways that would incentivize smarter parking—using sensors that indicate where parking spaces are available, apps that allow drivers to pay by cell phone, and other driver-friendly strategies. And some of these funds should go to encourage would-be motorists to take other modes—improving transit, biking, and walking.
14: the fight continues
When I think of what streets will look like in the next two decades, I hope that the differences will be visible in the way that space is used, with more people walking on more attractive sidewalks landscaped with trees and greenery, riding bike in safe, well-designed lanes, or riding on state-of-the-art bus rapid transit lines that criss-cross the city. And there will be cars. Nothing I've said denies the importance of the automobile. It is a question of rebalance, equity, and fairness.
The Times Square saga is a reminder that in New York and other cities, changing the streets is a blood sport at all levels. Projects that alter streetscapes upset people who naturally cling to stability, even if that stability is unsafe or inefficient. The flip side is that once change is in place, it becomes the new norm and frames expectations of citizens.