Taking Back the Streets: Pedestrian Spaces and a Crosstown Bike Route

Another Sunday, another street fair.  This past Sunday’s street fair on 100th St between Broadway and West End was not quite as extensive as last week’s, which closed down half of Broadway for 10 blocks.  Nevertheless, it had the obligatory bouncy castle, which of course meant we had to stop while my daughter played.

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My daughter pauses from fishing in a kiddie pool and getting her face painted to listen to a kid-friendly guitarist sing Old McDonald.

Walking about in the middle of a car-free street for the second week in a row got me thinking about street allocation space in New York City more generally.

NYC, and particularly Manhattan, is known as a city of pedestrians.  Walkers rule, and rulers walk (and take the bus and subway, too).  As such, the sidewalks are often crowded.  The most congested pedestrian thoroughfare on the Upper West Side is Broadway.  Between street merchants hawking cheap hats, shirts, and scarves, hot dog, pretzel, and coffee vendors providing instant nourishment to commuters and passers-by, and fruit stands offering healthy snacks, there is barely enough room left to walk, let alone for all the strollers, scooters, wheelchairs, and bikes (yes, it is legal for kids) to pass.

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In this typical frame, I count just 4 moving cars, 1 bike, and 5 people on the near side of Broadway.  The mismatch is even greater during rush hour, as traffic crawls on the roadway while sidewalks teem with pedestrians.

So what to do?  Broadway has far too little bus traffic to make BRT worthwhile, and in any case the route parallels a major subway line.  Expanding sidewalks and adding a bike lane (perhaps by expanding the center median as a shared bike/ped zone) may work, but I’d imagine most people would still want to walk by the stores rather than in an island of traffic.  As for bikes, a safer path downtown already exists on Columbus Ave, and plans are in the works for a similar path headed uptown along Amsterdam Ave.

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Taking advantage of some waiting time at the crosswalk.

I propose the creation of new pedestrianized spaces for people to stroll and shop along the cross streets.  This way some of the load may be taken off Broadway and other avenues, and the overall desirability of the area would be improved.  Since these blocks do not have the capacity for retail storefronts, this would necessitate allowing street vendors to congregate there, perhaps replacing those crowding the sidewalks on Broadway (though hopefully also attracting a few higher-end vendors).  Such a space could also work as outdoor exhibition and performance space for local artists and musicians looking to gain some cheap exposure.

Not every street would work well for this purpose, particularly not the ones with only relatively low rise brownstones.  A never-ending street fair would doubtlessly be opposed by residents of these quiet streets.  Fortunately, the City of New York has already laid out an ideal corridor for this plan in the form of the crosstown bike routes.

Crossing Manhattan from East to West and back has long been the bane of many a Manhattan resident and commuter.  At the moment, the main options for crossing between the Upper East and West Sides are a car/taxi, a bus, or to walk.  You might think the problem for a car or bus is Central Park, but actually crossing the park via one of the four transverse roads is the easiest part of the trip.  The real problem is on the crosstown streets, where one faces the choice of either crawling through traffic on the wider streets, such as 86th and 96th, or risk getting stuck behind a van or truck unloading its cargo, a taxi unloading a passenger, or a car pulling into a free parking spot on any of the narrower streets.

A bus has the added drawback of unceasingly long dwell times at practically every street corner to pick up passengers, each of whom must come aboard and pay one at a time.  Rolling out SBS on the M86 line as planned may go a long way to resolving the crosstown nightmare, but it certainly will not be enough.

The most efficient way to cross Manhattan is by bicycle, and the crosstown bike routes are prime candidates for pedestrianization.

A few years ago NYC DOT embarked on creating a pair of crosstown bike routes on 90th and 91st Streets.  [A similar pair exists on the West Side only at 78th and 79th Streets, but they have no corresponding route on the East Side.]  These routes, which feature painted lanes and bike boxes at some intersections, are a noble first start, but if the purpose is to draw crosstown commuters away from other modes, they remain woefully inadequate.

For starters, the routes do not allow one to cross Central Park in both directions.  While a shared bike/ped path was carved out by 96th Street, the path is only directly accessible to westbound cyclists (by first cycling north on the East Drive from 91st, then across the park, then south on the West Drive to 90th, finally detouring up one block along CPW back to the 91st Street westbound bike lane).  Eastbound cyclists are stuck either walking the bike or violating pedestrians’ right of way for several hundred feet going the wrong way on the drives.  The solution here is to open up another shared path inside Central Park, most likely in the vicinity of 86th Street.

The on-street routes themselves also leave much to be desired.  I take a portion of this route every day as part of my commute, and there is not a single day that my path is not blocked at some point by either a truck, a double-parked car, construction, or some other hazard requiring me to exit the lane.  While I appreciate the sentiment, at the end of the day it is just paint.  A viable crosstown bike route requires protected lanes the whole way.

Although the bike route streets have relatively more schools, synagogues and churches, there’s still quite a few high-rise apartment buildings.  Between West End Ave and Riverside Dr, these blocks also consist mostly of brownstones, so I would probably not touch those blocks.  For all the rest, I propose New York City’s own take on the “woonerf”.

A “woonerf” concept can transform key crosstown streets into pedestrian and bike priority zones while alleviating some of the pedestrian congestion on the avenues.

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11 feet of clear sidewalk space on either side allow much easier through movement for pedestrians than the present 5 or so feet. The 9 feet on either side devoted to street furniture and trees here could be alternated with open spaces reserved for merchants or performers. A narrow at- or near-grade roadway with commercial loading during the day and metered overnight parking could easily be shared between cars, bicycles, and crossing pedestrians. Credit: Streetmix.

The “woonerf”, or “home zone”, was developed in the Netherlands and implemented in large cities all over the world with much success.  For NYC, I would imagine a single lane of local-only traffic for trucks making deliveries and local pick-up and drop-off for cars should be sufficient.  In order to encourage exceedingly slow speeds on such streets, the entire street should be at or nearly at the same grade.  In order to enhance the appeal and accentuate the pedestrian nature of the street, the entire street should be re-paved with stone pavers, except perhaps for a narrow 5-foot patch of asphalt for bikes, set off from the rest of the street both visually and physically.  The street should have designated corridors for through-cycling and “through-walking”, as well as spaces along the side for sitting and relaxing, playing, shopping, eating, and entertaining.

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A crowd of children lines up to suggest the next line of Old McDonald.

Over the last several years New York City has become a more appealing place than ever to raise kids.  Yet the fact remains that, other than the occasional street fair, kids here are confined to play only in designated parks and playgrounds.  By taking back the streets for the people we can enhance New York City’s appeal as a place for all ages to live, work, and play.

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