Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Summer Streets: I want more!

I went to Summer Streets again last week, and again I had a good time. But in addition to my expansion suggestions, there were a few things that have started to get to me after four years. These are all pretty small things, but they could make a difference in people's enjoyment of the event, and in how well the event accomplishes its goals.

1. Framing. Several times I heard and read reference to the street being "closed," and at 1:00 I heard repeated announcements that they were going to "open it up again."

To someone like me, who rarely takes taxis and drives even less, when cars are allowed it doesn't feel "open" to me. It's open to me for three mornings a year, and pretty unavailable the rest of the time. Repeating over and over again that Park Avenue will be "opened up again" emphasizes that we don't belong.

A few times I've stayed on one of the streets and been directly addressed by the staff, who don't seem to be aware that bicycles are allowed on the streets even when Summer Streets is over. Last week a bunch of us were traveling the right direction in the Centre Street bike lane and got yelled at.

A more neutral framing would be to simply say, "Cars will be allowed on the street again. Be careful of the cars; they can kill you. Pedestrians move to the sidewalk, and bicycles move to the right."

2. Practice what you preach. What's with the DOT employees racing those stupid golf carts around? They're still three times heavier than anything else on the road. The DOT staff drive them too fast, and expect everyone else to get out of their way. They were never being used to transport anything, only to drive some self-important-looking people around.

There's a great spot at the foot of Park Avenue South where you can sit on a bench and look right up the avenue to Grand Central and the Pan Am Building. Across the street are an Au Bon Pain and a Starbucks. On each of the three Saturdays I took a break and sat there with an ice coffee, watching everyone walking, skating and riding by. This past week my view was blocked by one of those NYPD dollar vans, parked right on the sidewalk.

The DOT and the NYPD should respect the non-motorized, small-vehicle nature of the event. Leave the golf carts in the garage, and park the vans on the side streets. If people need to get someplace in a hurry, they should take the subway or a taxi - on one of the other avenues. Let the VIPs go be Very Important someplace else.

3. Be flexible with space. Someone decided that exactly half of the street should be dedicated to walkers and runners, and half to cyclists. There were little signs at key intersections reminding people to bike on the left and walk on the right, and they are always placed exactly midway between the sidewalk and the median, no matter how many cyclists or runners there are.

The volunteers shouted out at regular intervals, "Bikes to the left, walk to the right!" If cyclists went too far to the right they singled us out for special scolding, but never seemed to say a word to the runners or strollers in the left-hand lane.

All I'm asking for is a little flexibility. Volunteers should be told that if there are consistently more cyclists than pedestrians passing through an intersection, they should move the sign over, or at least refrain from scolding cyclists who ride just to the right of the sign.

4. The Park Avenue Tunnel. Every time I pass that, I think about how cool it would be to ride through it. It would also alleviate some of the bottlenecks in the East Thirties. It only needs to be open in one direction. Any arguments for not allowing bikes into the tunnel can also be made for not allowing cars into the tunnel on the other 362 days of the year.

5. Brooklyn Bridge conflicts. The DOT is intentionally directing hundreds of bikes and pedestrians onto the Brooklyn Bridge walkway on sunny summer weekends. This year I rode over on the second week, and it was packed with both cyclists and pedestrians, who were not always respecting each other's space.

This is a golden opportunity for someone (I'm thinking Transportation Alternatives, but it could be somebody else) to organize in favor of converting one car lane to a cycle track. It could start with Summer Streets, then be extended to every summer weekend, then 24/7. All you would have to do is station a few people at each end of the bridge with petitions and flyers, and you'd get both cyclists and pedestrians signing on. Alternatively, you could ask local politicians to cross the bridge on foot, and even on bike if they're willing.


nathan_h said...

Ha. We were saying some of the exact same things after the first weekend this year. Open vs. "closed" streets, and all the "offical" vehicles zooming around, far more this year than before.

I noticed the same thing at governor's island this summer, suddenly there are all kinds of motorized vehicles plying the "car free" island. What the hell? You can not have a nice space dedicated to actual human New Yorkers for more than a few minutes before *certain people* discover this exciting new way to display their superior status with the exclusive use of an internal combustion engine.

Pat said...

I like the Brooklyn Bridge idea. I've walked over several times in the evening this summer, and the walkway gets a little crazy. The pedestrian side gets bogged down with people taking photos, leading to lots of crossover into the (already pretty narrow) bike lane. I'm surprised I haven't seen any collisions.

It seems like that walkway could be widened without too much difficulty, but I'm not exactly a civil engineer, and opening a lane to bikes would be a quicker solution. Traffic seems to justify it on at least a part-time basis.

Alon said...

My experience of Summer Streets is more negative. It's like a street fair without the vendors. Because they want to keep it commercial-free, it's simply a road that's been partially pedestrianized. Since Park Avenue is very wide and has little ground-floor retail, probably the least of all the avenues, this doesn't create a bustling pedestrian experience. There was a lot of pedestrian and cyclist traffic through the viaduct over Grand Central, but on the segments further north, it felt more like walking in the roadway in Providence than like walking on a major pedestrian throughfare.

In contrast, consider Times Square. Although it's even wider than Park Avenue, it has a lot of activity on the street level: theaters, restaurants, street vendors, large stores. As a result, you never feel lonely or uncrowded there. The space available for pedestrians matches the pedestrian volumes in the area.

Alon said...

Just one more thing: a corollary of what I'm implying about street width and activity is that the next target for pedestrianization should be streets that are narrow relative to the amount of activity they have, and are not important bus routes. St. Mark's is a good example, as are many streets in Lower Manhattan and the Village.