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Posts from the "Quality of Life" Category

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Shared Space: The Street Design NYC’s Financial District Was Made For

Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP

Long studied, little implemented: This 1997 Department of City Planning map identified streets ripe for pedestrianization or plazas. Adding shared streets to the mix could open up more possibilities. Image: DCP

For people in cars, the Financial District is a slow-speed maze. For everyone else, it is one of the city’s most transit-rich destinations. Despite this, most of the street space in the area is devoted to cars.

The Financial District is an ideal candidate for pedestrianization, but while it has seen redesigns on a handful of streets, it has yet to see the large-scale creation of car-free space that has been studied and talked about for ages. Could introducing shared space to the mix help transform some of New York’s oldest streets into truly people-first places?

If not for the the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Financial District would effectively be a large cul-de-sac — there is no reason for through traffic to use its local streets. The evil twins of West Street and the FDR Drive feed cars to the tunnel and ring off the neighborhood from the waterfront. But within the Financial District itself, most of the streets are narrow and have far more pedestrians than cars.

There are a few places in the Financial District where car-free streets have taken hold over the years. Too often, the goal has been not to create an open, accessible city, but to build a fortress against the threat of truck bombs.

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How Road Planners Fail Neighborhoods

Why do neighborhood groups — especially in low-income areas — have such a hard time influencing the design of major road projects? An interesting case study from the University of Colorado-Denver sheds some light.

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Photo: Google Maps

To examine the barriers to incorporating public health principles into transportation planning, researchers studied the Allied-Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, a disadvantaged but organized community.

Locals spent years preparing for the redesign of Verona Road, a wide street that carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily. Although Verona is a major, high-traffic road in the federal highway system, it functions not only as a thoroughfare for vehicles but also a community space, with residential development and neighborhood-serving businesses on both sides.

The study found that neighborhood residents had many concerns about the road, including difficulty and danger of crossing it, and that it was noisy and blighted. But they weren’t very successful at winning support for proposals that would address those concerns.

“Their main concerns were excluded,” authors Carolyn McAndrews and Justine Marcus wrote, “even if some of their ideas were adopted.”

The planning process itself — led by the state, which produced the official Environmental Impact Assessment — presented three major barriers for residents of the neighborhood:

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Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. ”We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Transportation Investments and America’s Quality-of-Life Gap

For a while it didn’t seem certain, but after a critical vote earlier this month, it looks like California’s on track to build high-speed rail. And, I’ll be the first to admit, California — with two large, global metros just a few hundred miles apart — is a great place for it.

Despite some reservations about the costs and feasibility of the plan, people all over the country who care about sustainable transportation were generally happy to see America moving forward. But in Wisconsin and Ohio and Florida, the news was bittersweet. James Rowen at Milwaukee-based blog the Political Environment again mourned the $810 million in federal passenger rail invested spurned by Governor Scott Walker. (Shortly after Walker’s decision, the LA Times gleefully wrote, “Thanks a billion, cheeseheads.”)

As great a day as it was for sustainable transportation, it also concerned me a little. Ohio and Wisconsin forfeiting billions for high speed rail to California is perhaps the clearest illustration yet of the growing divide between regions willing to invest in a livable future and those that are not.

While Chicago reaps the benefits of transit- and bike-friendly policies under Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left), Ohio residents are paying the price for the obstinate refusal of Governor John Kasich (right) to invest in rail.

It seems that America is on two divergent paths. Progressive cities are engaged in something of an arms race to design neighborhoods and build infrastructure to enhance the quality of life. In Portland, they have streetcars, light rail, and neighborhood greenways. In New York, expertly-planned public plazas are making the central business district more attractive and reclaiming neighborhood streets for pedestrians. Soon the city will add a world-class bike-sharing system to go with its growing network of protected bike lanes. Seeming to recognize how these projects help to attract talent and investment, Chicago jumped in the game last year, with newly-elected mayor Rahm Emanuel promising to build 100 miles of separated cycle tracks and moving quickly to improve the city’s bus network.

Meanwhile, Ohio and Wisconsin — where talent and investment are no less needed — seem to have chosen a different path. Their Luddite governors are responsible for the painful loss of rail funds. And while there are counterexamples — Cincinnati and its streetcar, or Madison and its bike-share system — these places are moving much more slowly to adopt the kind of infrastructure that’s making places like New York and San Francisco increasingly desirable.

The obstacles in these regions are many. At the top of the list, you have harmful political decisions — typified by the unilateral rejection of passenger rail by Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich. And political resistance is reinforced when locals who prefer transit and walkability move away, as young, college-educated Midwesterners have been wont to do.

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Pedestrian Burdens: Send Us Pics of the Parking Garages Killing Your Street

At 1 Morningside Drive, parking minimums forced the construction of a 148-space garage. The developers put the parking on the ground floor, creating a blank wall facing a busy pedestrian street. Photo: Noah Kazis

Get your cameras ready, Streetsbloggers. It’s time to show Department of City Planning Director Amanda Burden what city-mandated parking garages are doing to the streets in your neighborhood.

In most of New York, it’s illegal to build anything of a certain size without a certain amount of parking, thanks to 1960s-era mandates in the city zoning code. Despite ample research showing that parking minimums encourage car ownership and cause traffic, DCP claims otherwise and clings to the position that these mandates are necessary.

Traffic isn’t the only cost of parking minimums, and under Burden DCP has at least acknowledged two other important ways they harm the city. Parking minimums increase the cost of housing, as the commissioner has stated, and parking on the ground floor erodes the pedestrian environment.

In some areas, DCP is beginning to rewrite the city’s archaic zoning regulations to try and prevent parking from taking the place of ground-floor retail, lobbies, stoops, and other uses that connect buildings to the sidewalk. On Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, where a 2003 rezoning led to a wave of development with ground floors dominated by ventilation ducts and even surface parking, DCP reversed course. In June, the department put out new rules forbidding curb cuts across the sidewalk, barring parking along the ground floor street frontage and encouraging retail uses. A draft rewrite of the parking regulations for much of Manhattan would eliminate a key incentive to build ground floor parking. In these select locations, Amanda Burden is making good on her widely-touted commitment to quality urban design.

Most of the city isn’t so lucky, however. In Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, parking is required in new developments. In practice, because developers often find it impractical to build underground parking, that often means the city is reserving ground floors for parking. Instead of new development fostering an engaging public realm, pedestrians encounter blank walls and curb cuts. The good news is that DCP is in the process of revising parking regulations for the “inner ring” of neighborhoods around the Manhattan core, which presents an excellent opportunity to stop forcing these dead spaces on neighborhoods everywhere.

Writing about parking regulations can get dry, so Streetsblog is going to start making the case visually. We need your help for our new photo series: “Pedestrian Burdens.”

Send us pictures of buildings in your neighborhood where parking harms pedestrian space, whether it’s a ground-floor garage, an egregious curb cut, or an ugly surface lot. Bonus points for buildings covered by parking minimums (larger buildings in Upper Manhattan or the other four boroughs) and built during the Bloomberg administration. Email your photos to tips@streetsblog.org and make sure to include the address of the buildings. We’ll feature the best on Streetsblog, building a visual case for Amanda Burden and DCP to act decisively on this critical urban design issue.

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Rezoning to Encourage Street Life on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue

With a curb cut, surface parking along the street frontage, and no retail use on the ground floor, the pedestrian-hostile design for the "Le Bleu" hotel wouldn't cut it under newly proposed zoning rules for Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue. Photo: Ben Fried.

When the Department of City Planning put forward its rezoning of Park Slope in 2003, one of the earliest of the now 111 rezonings under Mayor Bloomberg and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, it was intended to help turn Fourth Avenue into “a grand boulevard of the 21st Century.”

The sought-after residential development has started to take place, but at street level, there’s been widespread disappointment with the results. Instead of providing a healthy pedestrian realm, the ground floor of many new developments has been taken up by ventilation equipment and even a surface parking lot.

In response, the Department of City Planning has put forward a new set of rules intended to ensure that as Fourth Avenue develops further, it does so in a way that invites people to walk along the street.

At least half of the ground floor frontage of each new building along Fourth would be required to be retail, and parking wouldn’t be allowed anywhere along the ground floor street frontage. Requirements for a certain amount of glass storefronts would provide opportunities for window-shopping, while strict restrictions on curb cuts across Fourth Avenue sidewalks will give pedestrians more space and comfort.

With the endorsements of local Council Members Brad Lander, Stephen Levin and Sara González, the plan is likely to move relatively smoothly through the land use review process over the next few months.

The underlying zoning, including bulk, use, and parking requirements, will remain the same along Fourth. However, many of the worst offenders of the last development cycle would not be up to code under the new regulations.

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MAS Survey: New York City Is Livable But Not Everyone Benefits Equally

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and 108th Street is dangerous enough that Mayor Bloomberg announced the city's Pedestrian Safety Plan there, but has Corona received the livable streets improvements found elsewhere in the city? Image: Google Street View.

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and 108th Street is dangerous enough that Mayor Bloomberg announced the city's Pedestrian Safety Study there, but has Corona received the livable streets improvements found elsewhere in the city? Image: Google Street View.

New Yorkers think their city is very livable, a new survey conducted by the Municipal Art Society shows, but livability isn’t equitably distributed across the five boroughs. To make the city truly livable, said panelists today at an MAS conference, New York needs to figure out how to bring its best features to all neighborhoods.

Overall, New Yorkers like their city: 84 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied or very satisfied with living in New York City, and 82 percent said the same about their neighborhoods.

Perhaps part of that satisfaction comes from living in the American city least dominated by the automobile. The two neighborhood characteristics that New Yorkers were most satisfied with were access to transit (93 percent) and neighborhood walkability (85 percent).

However, the MAS survey showed huge disparities in the degree to which New Yorkers find their neighborhoods to be livable. Overall, while 22 percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Latinos were dissatisfied with their neighborhoods, only nine percent of whites were. Only eight percent of whites disagreed that their neighborhood was a good place to walk, while 18 percent of African-Americans and 19 percent of Latinos disagreed.

In the words of MAS Urban Fellow Mary Rowe, “If you’re white, you’re male, you’re under 45, and you’re making more than 75K, the city’s working well for you. Duh.”

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NYC’s Car-Free Majority Deserves a Share of Defunct Bus Stops

When the MTA service cuts took effect last month, 570 bus stops around the city suddenly became a collective no-man's land. Buses weren't pulling up to the curb anymore, creating an irresistible vacuum for motorists. If you belong to a neighborhood message board or listserve, you may have come across a few dispatches from car owners salivating over the prospect of more parking.

Maybe it's impolitic to discuss how to use this space while the pain of the service cuts still stings, but the NYPD isn't waiting to manage all that real estate: They've stopped ticketing motorists for parking in the bus stops. Acres of space that used to accommodate transit riders are now de facto parking spots.

We reported in May that this is mostly what the city has in mind anyway. DOT's plan is to turn most bus stops into parking spaces, or convert them to loading zones where deemed necessary. At a meeting of Brooklyn Community Board 6 last night, a DOT representative reiterated the department's intention to primarily use the bus stops for storing private vehicles. He also expressed some openness to installing bike parking in the bus shelters, but not on the street itself.

While the loading zones will help reduce double-parking, it looks like we're still on track for a significant redistribution of public space that won't benefit the 55.7 percent of New York households which don't own a car. 

It doesn't have to end up this way. In San Francisco, the city took some highly visible steps to convert defunct bus stops to non-automotive uses. Some bus stops were re-purposed as bike corrals, with secure parking for six to twelve bikes at each stop. Elsewhere, they used the free space to shuffle around the street's parking spaces and install a "parklet," a temporary public plaza built along the curb.

This is an important time to act on the idea, exemplified by Summer Streets, that streets form the bulk of the city's public space and belong to everyone. Here are a few treatments that would make life better for New York's car-free majority:

  • At dangerous intersections, shift the parking spaces around so that the pedestrian crossings are daylighted, allowing drivers and peds to see each other better
  • If a BID or other group can maintain the space, set it off with planters and add some seating
  • On streets with lots of foot traffic, designate official zones for food vendors
  • We said it before but it just makes so much sense: bike corrals

DOT has figured out how to do some pretty ingenious things with newly available curbside space, and really, the only equitable way to divide up these stops would be to devote most of them to car-free uses. New Yorkers who don't own cars shouldn't be shut out of using our old bus stops.

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How Do You Get New York’s Street Fairs Past Fried Dough?

Tube_Socks.jpgA typical New York street fair. This one's on the Upper West Side, not that it makes a difference. Photo: Ed Yourdon/Flickr
Every summer, New Yorkers face a dire shortage of tube socks. Or so you'd assume if you walked through the city's 300-odd street fairs. Though some fairs are cherished local institutions, the majority are corporate cookie-cutter affairs. That's a real wasted opportunity in a city so starved for public space. 

With so much room for improvement, the Center for an Urban Future asked 24 New Yorkers what they'd do with the city's street fairs. Though particular proposals spanned the entire spectrum of the possible, nearly all agreed that street fairs need to be tied more closely to their particular community and that the city needs to allow more experimentation.

With notable exceptions like the acclaimed Atlantic Antic festival, most of New York's street fairs are nearly indistinguishable. Fully half of all permits to sell food at street fairs are held by only 20 vendors, according to a 2006 study by the Center for an Urban Future.

To make matters worse, dissatisfaction with the current crop of street fairs, which anger many residents by blocking traffic and creating piles of garbage, has led to a moratorium on new street fairs. That means that what you see is all you're going to get. There's no competition from new kinds of fairs.

To top it all off, the city loses money on every street fair because of overtime costs for police officers. Something's got to change.

Most people interviewed highlighted the importance of tying the street fair to the local community. "New York has very distinctive neighborhoods," said Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, "so it seems to me that we should encourage elements of street fairs that are distinctive." The most praised fairs -- the Ukrainian Festival in the East Village, International Pickle Day on the Lower East Side, the Queens Art Express -- all drew their inspiration, and their vendors, from the surrounding community. 

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Jackson Heights Neighbors Band Together to Win Car-Free Street Expansion

Dromm_march.jpgJackson Heights residents and Council Member Daniel Dromm (bottom left) marched to Queens Community Board 3 to call for expanding the car-free 78th Street Play Street. Photo via Jackson Heights Green Alliance

Nearly 200 Jackson Heights residents marched on their community board last Thursday night to support the expansion of car-free public space in their neighborhood. That feat of organizing helped win the approval of Queens Community Board 3 for a summer-long 78th Street Play Street, reversing the stance of the board's transportation committee.

The play street debuted in the summer of 2008, but up until this year, it's only been in effect on Sundays. Now the street will be free from traffic for the entire months of July and August.

The play street occupies the block of 78th between Northern Boulevard and 34th Avenue, functioning as an extension of the heavily-used Travers Playground, which many parents in the neighborhood say is overcrowded during hot summer months. "We've got to find creative ways to increase the green space in the neighborhood," said Dudley Stewart of the Jackson Heights Green Alliance. "We're second to last in city districts as far as green space is concerned." Jackson Heights residents have used the play street for activities from chalk painting and ball games to learning to ride a bike.

Extending the play street to last through the summer was one of the planks in Daniel Dromm's campaign for City Council last fall. "Without him, it would have been almost impossible to have this happen," said Stewart. Since taking office, Dromm has leafletted neighbors and commissioned a traffic study on the play street. The summer-long extension also enjoyed support from City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, Assembly Member Michael DenDekker, Senator Jose Peralta, and U.S. Congressman and Queens Democratic Party Chair Joe Crowley.

Even so, the transportation committee of Community Board 3 voted against extending the duration of the play street, claiming that it would bring crime and noise to the neighborhood after dark, eliminate parking spaces, and block emergency vehicle access. 

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