Jan Gehl: New York Could Have World’s Best Streets

When DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, together with consultant and Danish urban planner Jan Gehl,  introduced the new "World Class Streets" doc [PDF] to a crowd of over 300 last Thursday evening at the Center for Architecture, the event seemed equal parts town hall meeting and celebrity book launch.

wcs1.jpgBuilding upon PlaNYC and DOT's Sustainable Streets, World Class Streets focuses on improving the public realm by concentrating on plazas, complete street design, and Summer Streets-style pedestrian and cycling events. Together these measures aim to transform New York streets into "an environment that is enjoyable as well as functional" for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users of all ages.

For the report, Gehl Architects and DOT conducted a "Public Life Survey," gathering a wealth of data that identifies overcrowded sidewalks, streets without seats, excessive scaffolding, isolated public spaces, and a low ratio of stationary activities as shortcomings to address. "Often the most crowded areas (such as sidewalks near subway stops and street corners) are the places where most obstacles exist," it observes, also noting that "a vastly disproportionate amount of space is allocated to parking cars than to public seating spaces." One telling example is Main Street in Flushing, Queens, where pedestrians outnumber vehicle passengers by a ratio of two to one, yet pedestrians must squeeze into less than one-third of the space.

Among other interesting tidbits in the report:

  • Stroget in Copenhagen has 444 cafe seats per 1,000 yards, vs. 15 on Broadway (p. 15).
  • Just six percent of pedestrians on Broadway are either under the age of 14 or over 65 (p. 31).
  • Sixty percent of storefronts in the Lower Manhattan survey area had closed metal gates on a Sunday at noon (p. 35).

Accusing city higher-ups since Robert Moses of asking only "how the cars can be really happy," Gehl said today's DOT has finally recognized that streets should accommodate a multitude of uses. "New York has wonderful, wide streets compared to other places," he told the audience. Thanks to these relatively spacious streets as well as unique urban density, cultural vitality, parks, and waterways, he said, "New York can have the best streets in the world."

A new city street design manual -- due out this winter -- will set technical guidelines for DOT and all city agencies to implement the changes advocated by World Class Streets. Meanwhile there are miles of bike lanes to create, sidewalks to widen, pedestrian refuges to build, new bike racks to install, and recalcitrant drivers to educate.