By Len Maniace
Who could imagine a decade ago that traffic on New York’s honking, cursing, screeching streets would be shoved aside to make room for bicycles and pedestrians. Or that New Yorkers, born and bred, would join tourists shooting cell-phone photos in the center of Times Square, Herald Square and other newly minted plazas.
That’s the legacy of Janette Sadik-Khan, who in her six years as city transportation commissioner remade city streets, greatly expanding bike lanes and introducing pedestrian plazas and bus rapid transit.
Though she’s gone from city government, the human-scaled transportation renaissance Sadik-Khan fomented is not abating. Soon after taking office, Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed Vision Zero, a campaign to stem motor-vehicle carnage on pedestrians, and the city Department of Transportation continues to roll out new programs to make city streets more livable.
The future of city streets was among the issues covered by a livable-New York conference at Pratt Institute sponsored by the Municipal Art Society this past Saturday. Several speakers urged New Yorkers to move cycling, pedestrian and bus-rapid-transit initiatives into the fabric of the wider city.
Tightly built areas such as New York must look to their streets to fill some of their open-space needs, said Shin-pei Tsay, a board member of Transportation Alternatives, a group that champions walking, biking and transit use. New York’s 6,000 miles of streets and adjoining sidewalks comprise 80 percent of its public space, according to the city’s Department of Transportation – far surpassing land devoted to parks. “Since most of us walk or take public transportation, it’s important for that space to be better apportioned,” Tsay said.
Javier Bautista, a community coordinator with Transportation Alternatives flicked through a Power Point presentation that showed ideas for reclaiming portions of city streets. One of the more ambitious was a redesigned Fifth Avenue that featured a curbside bus-rapid-transit lane, next to two lanes of auto traffic, along a lane given over to plantings that served as protection for a new bike lane.
The fear that pedestrian plazas would further slow traffic has not happened, Bautista said, because the city’s redesign efforts have simplifying intersections and eliminated road-clogging left turns in key locations. Pedestrian plazas and part-time street closures such as play streets not only green and calm streets, but they help humanize them, he said. “It’s something that we don’t often think about, but pedestrian plazas and play streets promote neighborliness and build community,” Bautista said.
Such street-design changes fall under the heading of engineering – one of planners’ “three E’s” for safer, more pedestrian friendly streets. The other two are enforcement and education.
Under Vision Zero police are paying more attention to motorists driving illegally. Drivers, increasingly, will need to watch out for speed-cameras, which work similar to the red-light cameras that have reduced the number of drivers blowing through traffic signals, Bautista said.
Up to 20 speed cameras within a quarter-mile of city schools have been approved by the state Legislature and many more are expected to be installed in the next year, Bautista said.