Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Jan 30th 2007 at 11:02am UTC

The City That Never Walks

Brian Knudsen sent me this link to Robert’s Sullivan’s terrific oped in yesterday’s New York Times:

“For the past two decades, New York has been an inspiration to other
American cities looking to revive themselves. Yes, New York had a lot
of crime, but somehow it also still had neighborhoods, and a core that
had never been completely abandoned to the car. Lately, though, as far
as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of
America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring
New York.”

As a New Yorker who has spent two years researching roads and
transportation across the United States, I am saddened to see our city
falling behind places like downtown Albuquerque, where one-way streets
have become more pedestrian-friendly two-way streets, and car lanes are
replaced by bike lanes, with bike racks everywhere.

Then there is Grand Rapids, Mich., which has a walkable downtown
with purposely limited parking and is home to a new bus plaza that is
part of a mass transit renaissance in Michigan. The state is investing
in high-speed trains, and it is even talking about a mass transit
system for the nation’s auto-capital, Detroit, where a new pedestrian
plaza anchors downtown. In Indianapolis, an urban walking and biking
trail will soon link inner-city neighborhoods — something New York
certainly hasn’t tried.

We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because
we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed
Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars
moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic.

London now charges drivers a fee to enter the core business area,
but here such initiatives are branded as anti-car, and thus
anti-personal freedom: a congestion fee, critics say, is a tax on the
middle-class car commuter. But as matters now stand, the pedestrian is
taxed every day: by delays and emissions, by asthma rates that are (in
the Bronx) as much as four times the national average. Though we think
of it as a luxury, the car taxes us, and with it we tax others.

And yet, here in New York, we even have the debate over bicycle
traffic backwards. We focus on drivers’ complaints about the bicycle
commuter who races through red lights, rather than on the concerns of
the mother biking her child around organic-food delivery trucks that
idle in bike-only lanes. In December, the police say, a bicyclist was
killed on the Hudson River Greenway by a drunken driver speeding along
a bike lane that was completely separated from the road. Asked what was
being done to improve safety in light of the biker’s death, Mayor
Michael Bloomberg suggested that bikers “pay attention.”

“Even if they’re in the right, they are the lightweights,” he told a reporter.

Contrast this response with that of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago
after a 4-year-old pedestrian was killed in a hit and run. Mayor Daley
immediately set up a pedestrian awareness program, suggested that
police sting operations arrest speeding drivers and proposed to add 500
miles of bike lanes, so that there would be one within a half-mile of
every resident.

One reason New York is losing its New York edge may be that the
city’s revival is partly based on a strange reversal: the city is the
new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned
years ago for lawns and better public schools. They’ve brought with
them a love of cars. A new study by Bruce Schaller, a local
transportation consultant, shows that half the drivers in Manhattan are
from the city — and that more city residents than suburbanites drive to
work every day.

New Yorkers always find good reasons to drive. Public transportation
is dirty, time-consuming, a hassle, unsafe. Walking takes too long. The
children will be late for school. But choosing the car is no longer
safe — for your children who already don’t get enough exercise, for
anyone’s lungs or for the future of New York as a livable place. There
are even such things as secondhand driving effects: studies show that
people who live on high-traffic streets tend to stay inside.

The simple and elegant cure for the loss of New York’s inner
pedestrian is to open up car-clogged streets and public spaces. Another
of Mr. Schaller’s surveys, sponsored by the citizens’ group
Transportation Alternatives, showed that 89 percent of people
questioned on Prince Street in SoHo got there by subway, bus, foot or
bicycle, and that the majority would gladly give up parking for more
pedestrian space.

With a million more New Yorkers scheduled to arrive by 2030, true
sustainability requires the city — or at least its residents — to make
a bold move. Some neighborhoods are already working on it. The Ninth
Avenue Renaissance Project, sponsored by a coalition of residents and
businesses, has held community workshops on converting Ninth Avenue
from Lincoln Tunnel access ramp to boulevard.

The now chic Meatpacking District plans to bring back a space that,
since the area was a Native American village, has been a natural
gathering place for people without combustion engines: wider sidewalks,
public seating and a piazza in the restaurant-surrounded open field of
paving stones could be more like Campo dei Fiori in Rome and less a
spot for crazed U-turns. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the city’s
Department of Transportation has replaced parking spaces near a subway
station with rows of bike racks.

But these are tiny steps. Boston’s mayor has endorsed converting
Hanover Street in the city’s North End into a car-free pedestrian mall.
Why don’t we do the same in part or even all of SoHo? In Los Angeles,
some traffic lights are programmed to change for approaching buses (a
signal in the bus alerts the light). Why can’t the same happen on 14th
Street?

And if Boulder, Baltimore, Sacramento, San Diego, Denver, Houston,
Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Bergen County in New Jersey can build light
rails, then why can’t New York finally put one on 42nd Street? Times
Square could be the Crossroads of People instead of the Crossroads of
Car Congestion.

These are relatively cheap changes — in some cases, they require
just a couple of sawhorses. And New York’s walkability is crucial to
its character, no small part of which is its relative freedom from
America’s plague of strip malls. The great shame of the 22-acre
Atlantic Yards mega-development in Brooklyn is that it seems like
something out of Atlanta in the 1990s.

Not today’s Atlanta. Today’s Atlanta is building a circular hiking,
recreation and even transit trail, a little like the still unfinished
Manhattan greenway.

“Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places,”
wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We’ve already
lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of
their cars soon, the city’s future residents won’t have a reason to.”

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