Friday, October 9, 2009

Five things that Sadik-Khan can do for pedestrians

Like most livable streets and transit advocates in the New York area, I'm a big fan of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. If I didn't already think that Bill Thompson was a clueless blowhard, I would vote for anybody but him because he's promised to fire Sadik-Khan if he ever becomes Mayor. She has done a tremendous amount to make this city more livable, more environmentally friendly, and safer. I'm particularly pleased by the improvements to Broadway between Columbus Circle and Madison Square, by Summer Streets, and by the 34th Street bus lane. I'm looking forward to Phase 2 of the 34th Street plan, and to extensions of Summer Streets and the Broadway boulevard.

Still, there are some more things that could make things a lot better for pedestrians. Some of them seem pretty simple to me, others a lot more complicated. I'm guessing that she's considered most of them, and that there's some political reason why Bloomberg can't support her on them. Still, these are things I hope I will see in the next four years or so.

  1. Remove the barricades: During the 1997 Christmas shopping season, NYPD Chief Allan Hoehl decided to try preventing pedestrians from crossing at certain corners in Midtown Manhattan. A few months later, Acting Transportation Commissioner Richard Malchow made these barricades permanent. They force pedestrians to go several yards out of their way to cross the street - a small inconvenience, but a huge symbolic slap in the face to pedestrians from Giuliani's arrogant bureaucracy. Since Sadik-Khan took over the DOT, I've been expecting her to get rid of them, but they're still there.

  2. Make sidewalk extensions standard: They're documented to make streets safer for pedestrians. They should probably be on every corner. In 2002, Bloomberg and Commissioner Weinshall missed a golden opportunity: they spent $218 million to install curb cuts at corners throughout the city, bowing to years of sustained pressure from disability rights advocates. They could have installed extensions at many of those corners, but of course they didn't. Sadik-Khan could make up for that by setting a policy that in the future any corners that are rebuilt will be rebuilt with extensions by default. Those extensions could be omitted if circumstances argue against them, not the other way around.

  3. Summer Streets across the Manhattan Bridge: Summer Streets has proven to be wildly popular for two years running, and it's time to extend it. A large number of livable streets advocates live in Brooklyn and already travel to Manhattan for the event. We could make it easier for them to attend, and bring some tourist dollars and recreation to Brooklyn, by extending Summer Streets east on Canal Street, across the upper deck of the Manhattan Bridge and down Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Park. Sadik-Khan may need some help from the NYPD on this: I've heard that the policing costs are very expensive, but that the police staffing levels are very much overkill, and many of those cops could be replaced by event staff with no decrease in safety.

  4. Widen Penn Station sidewalks: Sadik-Khan has done great things for pedestrians in Herald and Times Squares, but it's well-documented that there's a heavy crush of pedestrians around Penn Station during weekday rush hours. That's where pedestrian improvements are needed the most. Why not take a lane or two out of Seventh and Eighth Avenues and make them available for pedestrians?

  5. Loading zones on every block: I've made the case that the lack of dedicated loading zones makes the city much more dangerous. The city's culture of double-parking, where "everyone does" something that's illegal and dangerous, poisons the relationship between motorists and traffic enforcement agents. Rampant double-parking encourages negligent idling practices. It also pits motorists defending their "right" to double-park against pedestrians who want narrower streets to discourage speeding, and cyclists who want protected bike lanes. The DOT is constantly reconfiguring parking on blocks around the city. What if every time they did that they set aside a space or two that was only available for loading and unloading, maximum occupancy fifteen minutes?

17 comments:

Alon Levy said...

The most important thing Sadik-Khan can do for pedestrians is to quit. Authoritarian megalomaniacs whose lesson learned from the Moses-Jacobs conflict was "Moses would've been awesome if only he'd railroaded neighborhood for the kind of transportation I like" should have no influence over city policy.

Cap'n Transit said...

Authoritarian megalomaniac? What, Alon, were you asleep for the Chris Lynn years? Or would you prefer authoritarian bureaucrats with no vision, like Iris Weinshall, Wilbur Chapman and even Lee Sander? None of them were any more responsive to the community than Sadik-Khan.

I'm disappointed you fell for that line. Just because Sadik-Khan has a vision and a commitment to sustainability doesn't make her a megalomaniac. The people spreading that lie are the ones whose interests were served by authoritarians like Weinshall. They don't want the actual community to have a voice, just the self-appointed elites who are assumed to represent "the community."

Do you really want to go back to the days when the top priorities were "move traffic" and "more parking?"

Alon Levy said...

Sadik-Khan doesn't want the actual community to have a voice, either. She slaps bike paths and pedestrian-only streets regardless of what the local business community thinks, and she makes sure to do it at dead night to create a fait accompli.

Vision doesn't have to be done autocratically. Lee Sander was a bureaucrat, but he occasionally talked to straphangers and didn't decide to turn streets into linear parks just because he could.

I don't see much sustainability coming from what Sadik-Khan's doing, either. Her choice of which streets to pedestrianize isn't governed by where there are the most accidents (QB), where closing the street would reduce traffic (as in the map you posted a few months ago), or where local businesses want it (nowhere). It's governed by which areas she wants to turn into playgrounds for tourists and the gentry.

Even that limited vision doesn't work too well. The Broadway linear park is often deserted, especially at night, when it's at its sketchiest. It's no different from 1950s-era urban renewal, which is unsurprising given that it's Sadik-Khan's model of how to do things.

Cap'n Transit said...

Okay, Alon, I will not tolerate lies on this blog. I'll give you a week to produce proof that Sadik-Khan has installed one bike path or pedestrian-only street "at dead night," with no warning to the community, or I'm deleting that comment.

And please send a photo of Broadway deserted, because it's never been that way any time I've been there. If you can't tell the difference between Times Square today, with its continuing lively storefronts and street culture, and the sterile walkways of Lincoln Center, you've been reading too many Post columns.

As far as whether the local business community wants pedestrian spaces, it's easy to find positive quotes from business leaders along Broadway - before the pedestrian space was set up. "We applaud the City's attempt to come up with bold and innovative solutions to long-standing problems in Times Square," said Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance. "The Mayor has done a great thing by including pedestrians in his plans for Herald Square," said Dan Biederman, President of the 34th Street Partnership. And cheerful photos afterwards.

You could argue that these business leaders were coerced, but this is not China, and it's my understanding that even under Bob Moses people were perfectly free to protest his actions, and regularly did - they just weren't listened to.

I would definitely like to see Queens Boulevard calmed and West Broadway pedestrianized, but I think it's more about where she was able to find business leaders who were thoughtful enough, rather than this bizarre notion of playgrounds for the gentry.

Alon Levy said...

The bits about Sadik-Khan's overnight operations and general authoritarian persona come from a New York Magazine article from May. The overnight thing was not a bike lane, it turns out, but a pedestrianization project around Madison Square. And yes, the article quotes business groups that are pissed off by her projects, for example her Chelsea bike lanes.

Your comparison of Times Square and Lincoln Square is misleading. Times Square has been lively at all hours of the day since long before it was pedestrianized. My observations are that the pedestrianization has made it somewhat less lively, by creating a dead zone in the middle. And in either case, Times Square is a tourist playground - locals go to Union Square instead.

Lincoln Square isn't as sterile as you think. I used to spend a lot of time there, and it always seemed okay until about 9 or 10. Considering the fact that Lincoln Center was an urban renewal project built by bulldozing a couple of blocks, this is not that bad. The area near 72nd and Broadway was not subject to the same treatment, and is much livelier.

Cap'n Transit said...

Okay, it's not exactly what you described, but I'll let your comment stay. Apparently she did do the Madison Square project at night, but she seems to have learned from that and as far as I can tell has not done that again. Either way, I haven't heard of anyone who's complained about the new Madison Square configuration in the past year.

I didn't expect the New York article to give such a negative impression. Looks like it fed into people's paranoia.

I didn't say that there were no business groups that opposed her projects, I disagreed with your assertion that all business groups were dead set against it.

The business groups are by definition elite, since anyone with enough capital to start a business and enough free time to go to all those meetings is pretty well off, especially in Manhattan, so their cries of elitism ring very hollow. It's well-documented that many merchants in New York have an overinflated idea of how many of their customers come by car, so they tend to think that anything that restricts car use is going to drive them out of business, and they're invariably proven wrong.

The complaints over Chelsea bike lanes were particularly nutty. One business owner tried to claim that it was an attack on the gay community. These people are grasping at straws, and you really can't take them at face value.

Alon Levy said...

I didn't expect the New York article to give such a negative impression. Looks like it fed into people's paranoia.

I don't think it did. It was overall more positive than negative - for example, the only outer borough interest it quotes is John Liu; there's nothing there about how Sadik-Khan is ignoring any part of the city that's not in the gentrified neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The article goes a little bit into the class issues at play, but not into how the current administration is marginalizing people.

The business groups are by definition elite, since anyone with enough capital to start a business and enough free time to go to all those meetings is pretty well off, especially in Manhattan, so their cries of elitism ring very hollow.

They're not really elite. They're dominated by small business, especially in non-CBD areas like Chelsea. Small businesses are usually run by people who're middle- or upper-middle-class by income and anywhere from underclass to middle class in political connections. People who have political power don't start running bodegas and restaurants; they run thinktanks and planning bodies instead.

It's well-documented that many merchants in New York have an overinflated idea of how many of their customers come by car, so they tend to think that anything that restricts car use is going to drive them out of business, and they're invariably proven wrong.

Where's the documentation?

Besides, when they complain about reduced profits after the fact, as I hear some merchants do in Chinatown (the beef is Bloomberg's closure of Park Row), it's not about expectations anymore. The issue is not just customer access by car, but also blight and freight access. The pedestrianized lanes of Broadway I've seen are blighted, making it less likely I'm going to go into one of the stores, and much less likely those stores will be able to get supplies as quickly as possible.

Cap'n Transit said...

"there's nothing there about how Sadik-Khan is ignoring any part of the city that's not in the gentrified neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn."

Yeah, probably because she isn't.

"They're not really elite. They're dominated by small business, especially in non-CBD areas like Chelsea."

They're local elites. They may not have the same kinds of connections as the kings of finance in Manhattan, but then again, neither do the membership of Transportation Alternatives. They usually have enough connections to get their local councilmember or assemblymember to show up at a rally.

"Where's the documentation?"

Basically, every time a bike lane or a bus lane is put in, there are predictions of doom and gloom by the local business elites, which somehow never materialize and are quickly forgotten. Such apocalypses were predicted for Ninth Avenue and Prince Street in Manhattan, Ninth Street and Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, and Skillman and 43rd Avenues in Queens.

http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/12/14/rethinking-soho/

"The pedestrianized lanes of Broadway I've seen are blighted, making it less likely I'm going to go into one of the stores, and much less likely those stores will be able to get supplies as quickly as possible."

Blighted my ass. Every time I walk by most of the seats are full. The current configuration includes dedicated loading zones for deliveries, something that was not always available before, so if anything deliveries are easier. And don't forget that "blighted" Fulton Street in Brooklyn seems to be doing much better than areas with better car access:

http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2009/02/revenge-of-1975.html

Cap'n Transit said...

In any case, I never intended this to be a debate about the lies and distortions that the pro-car crowd has smeared Sadik-Khan with. If you believe them, feel free to replace her name with that of the skilled diplomat that Bill Thompson would no doubt appoint in her place.

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n, you're quoting a study done for the Manhattan Institute, whose standards aren't exactly the most objective or rigorous possible. It's important to stick to stuff that's either peer-reviewed or peer-review-grade, because otherwise it's just a question of which side can fund more garbage supporting its position. It's important to ignore both the Exxon-funded Reason Foundation and the racist-funded Manhattan Institute.

The indifference I mention toward the outer boroughs is there, like it or not. There are no plans to reduce traffic where it matters most: in asthma-ridden areas like East Harlem and Long Island City, and on murder avenues like QB.

As for "blighted my ass," I sometimes see the seats full, and sometimes don't. But even when the seats are full, few people seem to walk in those pedestrianized lanes - they walk on the sidewalk instead. If Broadway becomes a full linear park as Sadik-Khan wants it to, it will be even worse, since there will be a dead zone in the middle with little activity.

At least part of the problem is that Sadik-Khan is doing pedestrianization wrong. The successful pedestrianized streets I know - for example, Nanjing Road in Shanghai plus a few other streets in shopping areas, and a couple of pedestrian malls in Tel Aviv - work by paving the entire width of the street as a sidewalk. When the street is wide, there's retail in the middle with some interruptions, so the street becomes two or three corridors with very short blocks. This ensures the middle of the street doesn't become a dead zone, far away from retail.

All of those small competence issues are a consequence of trying to do things against the grain. Local communities tend to do better than central planners at proposing major changes because they have to make sure no blight ensues; they can't treat their neighborhoods as sandboxes. It's true for 197a proposals versus Bloomberg-style rezoning, and it's true for traffic calming versus putting bike lanes on a community that doesn't want them.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alon, I take the Manhattan Institute a lot more seriously when it's funding Bruce Schaller than, say, E.S. Savas.

It's the outer boroughs - or at least their elites - who have indifference towards Sadik-Khan, not the other way around. She hired Jan Gehl to help plan streetscapes for the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, and the only one where they welcomed him was Manhattan.

The reason that Sadik-Khan doesn't do pedestrianization the way you describe is that she doesn't have the money or the political power to turn a whole street into sidewalk in such short order. They have been doing something like that in the closed-off parts of Broad Street downtown, but the security theater renders it a complete mess for pedestrians.

In any case, let's put Sadik-Khan aside and assume that Thompson wins the election and puts Sean Sweeney in charge of the DOT in January. What do you think of my suggestions?

Alon Levy said...

In any case, let's put Sadik-Khan aside and assume that Thompson wins the election and puts Sean Sweeney in charge of the DOT in January. What do you think of my suggestions?

1, 2, and 4, I can't argue with. 3 and 5, I'm not familiar enough with to have an opinion about.

But then again, Thompson won't win, so it doesn't matter.

Jonathan said...

I fear to step in here, but I think Sadik-Khan deserves a little support for elaborating a vision that supports a wider diversity of New Yorkers. Unfortunately, her efforts at making NYC streets more attractive and less clogged with traffic are sandbagged by regional forces who are spending less than they could on rail and bus initiatives and by shortsighted economic development efforts centered around attracting big-box shopping to the five boroughs.

I don't think that city streets should have a price of admission. Add up the auto loan payment, the insurance, the maintenance, the fees and registration, the parking, and the fuel, and the cost to use those four-lane and six-lane avenues becomes exorbitant. And the argument that “I need a car to go to my sister's house/my parents' house/my summer share/my night job/my daycare” can be unpacked to: “Mass transit services are so limited or so decrepit (or both) that I need to commit to spending thousands of dollars a year in unrecoverable expenses, just to maintain the ready ability to see my family, go to the countryside, or return home safely late at night.”

I give the current DOT high marks for updating the vision of a world capital as a place where you don't need to pay those fees to take part in civic life. Obviously, people objected to congestion pricing because they recognized those fees and didn't want to pay more; CP's foot-in-mouth advocates didn't successfully make the case for congestion funding as a way to make mass transit more capable and attractive, thus allowing citizens to relinquish their autos (and the thousands of dollars in accompanying spending). Aside from the failed CP initiative, any other DOT pedestrian programs are just window dressing, taking advantage of the slight decrease in traffic from the lousy economy to make some minimal safety fixes.

On to your five initiatives:

Barricades: Moving the stop line to mid-block was meant to keep turning cars from running down pedestrians. Presumably this would reemerge as a problem if the barricades were removed. Is there some other kind of mitigation that could be put into place?

Sidewalk extensions: Sure, why not?

Summer Streets: If you shut down Flatbush Ave, where does the B41 go? How about closing Flatbush from the bridge to Fulton instead?

Penn Station sidewalks: Not a bad idea, but think bigger: why are there parking garages on 33rd & 31st Streets, across from the train station, or that driveway between the two parts of Madison Square Garden? Let's go back to the 2004 RNC traffic-freeze plan for the whole neighborhood, every morning and afternoon.

Loading zones: Yes. This should be priority number one, if only because it provides a way to separate local businesses from the ranks of parking-space advocates.

Alon Levy said...

elaborating a vision that supports a wider diversity of New Yorkers.

What diversity does Sadik-Khan support? I don't see any of her programs do anything about affordable housing, or tenant harassment, or any other issue that threatens the ability of people who're neither rich nor hipsters to stay in the city. On the contrary, her projects promote and feed off of gentrification.

Cap'n Transit said...

Okay, Alon, let me remind you that this is not a post about Sadik-Khan's overall record, nor a forum for recycling the right wing's lame attacks. I allowed Jonathan to post about it because you and I had gone on so long it only seemed fair.

Since it's my blog, I get the last word about Sadik-Khan's record: she has no control over affordable housing or tenant harassment. I don't see any way that her policies have "promoted gentrification" any more than any other action that increases quality of life in a meaningful way.

Further comments that do not focus on my proposals in this post will be deleted.

Jonathan said...

She's Transportation Commissioner, so I'm talking about the diversity of New Yorkers vis-a-vis modes of transport. In other words, a Transportation Commissioner who does something for New Yorkers who don't drive.

Vernon Malcolm said...

Them boys in Bayside are the most dangerous and backwards of all. The city should toughen inspections for medical, psychiatric and vehicle reasons to cut down the number of congestion. This way, we will also get the voters against congestion pricing, who live in Bayside and Staten Island, to move away. Free health care means psychiatric care for all those angry talk radio white males! They are all overweight from driving around too much, burdening the city health system!