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The Metamorphosis of NYC Streets

There’s nothing more dramatic than looking back five or ten years at Streetfilms footage to see how much the streets of New York City have changed. In this wonderful montage, check out the incredible changes at Times Square, Herald Square, the Brooklyn waterfront, and many other places that outgoing NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her staff have intrepidly transformed.

We have similarly high hopes for Mayor Bill de Blasio as he takes office, and look forward to what he and new NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg accomplish. Even though so much has changed, the vast majority of our streets still need to be rethought and redesigned. We need more space for efficient modes, slower speed limits, and traffic calming for our most vulnerable citizens. I hope this short gets them excited to top the transportation record of the Bloomberg administration.

Please note: This is but a short sample of the before-and-after footage at our disposal. Seriously, we could have put together a one hour version!

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The 2013 NYC Streetsies, Part 3

streetsie_2013

Happy New Year, and welcome to the third and final installment of the 2013 NYC Streetsies, also known as the Streetsblog Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Lifetime Achievement

We take it for granted these days that NYC DOT is primed to make change happen — that every year, the department will roll out a fresh new batch of projects devoting a greater share of our streets to walking, biking, transit, and public space. It wasn’t always that way. Before Janette Sadik-Khan took over in 2007, the defining traits of NYC DOT were stasis and rigidity. Change happened, but the pace was glacial, and modern ideas about designing and managing streets failed to take hold.

DOT was a place where ambitious bike planners quit in frustration. Where grassroots pedestrian safety initiatives languished for a decade. Where mayoral campaign proposals for faster busways gathered dust. Then-DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall deferred to engineers who believed the agency’s prime directive was to move cars. There were no strategic goals to improve the safety, efficiency, and sustainability of the street network. As late as January, 2007, Weinshall resolutely opposed legislation requiring DOT to evaluate its performance according to a new set of metrics that prioritized walking, biking, and transit.

Fast forward to April 2008. Sadik-Khan had led the agency for a year, bringing with her a new team of top deputies and giving fresh directives to the department’s career-long engineers. By that point, her DOT had already implemented the first stretch of on-street protected bike lane in any major American city and begun to experiment with quick, low-cost public space projects like the Pearl Street plaza in DUMBO. That month, in step with the Bloomberg administration’s citywide sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC 2030, the agency put out its first strategic plan, setting specific benchmarks to implement transit-priority corridors, reduce traffic deaths, and increase bicycling. It was, in retrospect, a key benchmark in and of itself. This is what it looked like for a big-city transportation department to commit to values other than moving traffic. There weren’t many other precedents, if any, in the country.

Photo: Brad Aaron

The strategic plan, the protected bike lanes, and the nimbly-built plazas were emblematic of the wave of innovation during Sadik-Khan’s tenure. But “innovation” didn’t necessarily entail invention. The city had been left in a position where it had to play catch-up with global leaders in transportation policy. By trying out proven ideas in New York for the first time, DOT could show that overhauling city streets was not only possible here, but also effective and desirable.

Before long, DOT teamed up with the MTA to implement New York’s first enhanced bus route with off-board fare collection. Then came the first demand-responsive parking prices on neighborhood commercial streets (not the sexiest innovation, but a solid one). The first on-street bike parking, the first “pop-up cafes,” and the first neighborhood-scale 20 mph zones. In the final act, DOT launched the nation’s largest bike-share system.

Once DOT hit its stride under Sadik-Khan, it became fairly common for the press (and even more common for anonymous blog commenters) to invoke Robert Moses when describing her tactics. But the comparison always seemed incongruous. Not only was DOT merely reshaping the public right of way (in many cases with nothing more than paint and planters!) as opposed to seizing people’s homes and property, but the public process that had been institutionalized in reaction to the excesses of Moses formed the backdrop for every single DOT project. “Robert Moses,” more often than not, was just code for “there’s less free parking than there used to be.”

What the opponents of DOT’s street redesigns never understood — or, perhaps more accurately, never admitted — was that their own neighbors, not city officials, were the most committed supporters of change. For years, DOT had been infamous for telling street safety activists “No.” That wasn’t the case at Sadik-Khan’s department, where New Yorkers who wanted safer streets could get a hearing. Neighborhood groups like the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, and Brownsville’s bike lane activists saw many of their ideas turn into major improvements for walking and biking. Change didn’t always come promptly to everyone who asked for it, but under Sadik-Khan, DOT became an agency that often said “Yes” to residents who wanted more livable streets.

Did those changes please all New Yorkers? Hardly, but as the poll numbers on bike lanes and plazas began to pile up, it was clear that most of us liked them just fine.

There is one respect in which Sadik-Khan’s legacy does resemble Moses’s: She is an exporter of ideas. Through her leadership of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, NYC DOT’s pioneering street designs turned into templates for other cities. Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the rapid adoption of protected bike lanes. A few years ago, this type of street design was basically non-existent in America. Today, dozens of U.S. cities have built bike lanes with physical protection from motor vehicle traffic.

Generally speaking, Sadik-Khan’s work with NACTO is the antidote to the suburban and rural bias that pervades American street design standards. The nation’s urban streets tend to be designed like highways because that’s what the dominant engineering guides call for. NYC DOT and other pioneering transportation departments have created proof on the ground that city streets should be built to a different standard. Thanks to NACTO’s design guides, cities around the country are starting to realize that they have “permission” to tailor streets for the urban context.

Yesterday was Sadik-Khan’s last day as NYC transportation commissioner. As much as she’ll be remembered for Citi Bike, the Midtown plazas, and other physical changes to the city, an equally important part of her legacy is how we think about streets. Expectations are higher now than they were six years ago. Transportation policy occupies a more prominent position in our local press and public discourse. After all the changes that have unfolded on her watch, there’s a greater understanding that so much of what we want out of our city — to feel safe, healthy, happy, and part of a community — is bound up in our streets. This will be invaluable as New Yorkers continue to fight for a city that’s safe from traffic violence.

Janette Sadik-Khan would be the first to say that NYC DOT’s accomplishments in the past six years have been a team effort. It’s not possible for me to personally acknowledge everyone at the department who’s contributed to these tremendous successes, but I hope this Streetsie conveys gratitude to them as well.

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DOT Capstone Report Looks Back, Offers Advice to Next Administration

Yesterday, DOT released “Sustainable Streets: 2013 and Beyond,” a 212-page report and accompanying website outlining the department’s achievements over the past six years and providing guidance for the next administration. Last night, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was joined by a panel of council members and New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson for a discussion of the document and the future of sustainable streets in New York.

DOT's new report looks back on its progress -- and leaves a blueprint for the next administration.

DOT’s new report looks back on its progress — and leaves a blueprint for the next administration. Image: DOT

“That certainly wasn’t the norm on city streets,” Sadik-Khan said in front of slides showing projects like the Madison Square plazas, the Prospect Park West bike lane, and Select Bus Service. Sadik-Khan pointed to the department’s 2008 Sustainable Streets strategic plan as the start of the transformation, followed by annual progress updates in the form of the Sustainable Streets Index. Last night’s release marked the capstone to six years of work, she said.

Just six years ago, the only yardstick by which the public could regularly assess the DOT was a few pages within the annual Mayor’s Management Report. It showed how many potholes DOT filled and how quickly the agency replied to service requests, but it didn’t offer a clear picture of the agency’s strategic goals and the measures it was using to track progress. Maybe because, at the time, the agency hadn’t articulated any strategic plan.

How times have changed. DOT now produces a bevy of reports to keep people informed about what the agency is doing and how the city’s streets are performing. Metrics like safety are now measured and tracked much more intensely and publicly.

The mammoth new report is divided into six sections, focusing on safety, mobility, world class streets, infrastructure, and resiliency. Each section includes a look back at how projects big and small have not just transformed the look and feel of New York City’s streetscape, but also changed travel behavior and measurably affected everything from crash rates to bus ridership and retail sales.

Each section also provides a series of recommendations for the future if the city is going to continue to meet its goals. The recommendations include things outside the agency’s direct control, like encouraging the state to give the city local control of automated enforcement, and things the agency did not do under Sadik-Khan, like aggressive expansion of physically-separated bus lanes. The report specifically mentions the pedestrian-heavy area around Penn Station, where DOT watered down its original busway plan in the face of opposition, as a candidate for car-free streets and dedicated transit lanes in the future.

During the panel after Sadik-Khan’s remarks, Council Member Brad Lander seconded the future focus on busways. ”The next mayor can’t be the bike mayor. That’s taken,” he said. “The beginnings of BRT are wonderful, but we need a really robust citywide BRT network.”

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Janette Sadik-Khan’s TED Talk: “You Can Remake Your Streets”

In the six years that Janette Sadik-Khan has headed the New York City Department of Transportation, streets have been transformed. Across the five boroughs, 26 acres of asphalt were converted into 50 pedestrian plazas. New bus lanes are speeding transit trips on major thoroughfares in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, and soon Brooklyn. The city added dozens of miles of protected on-street bike lanes — groundbreaking designs for an American city — and 350 miles of bikeways overall. The biggest bike-share system in the country launched this May, and now regularly sees 40,000 trips per day.

So what is the lesson from this new era of change on New York City’s streets?

“You can remake your streets, quickly, inexpensively — they can provide immediate benefits and it can be quite popular,” says Sadik-Khan in her TED talk.

These changes have improved safety, boosted retail performance, and elicited impressive public approval ratings despite TV and tabloid coverage that tended to be outlandishly negative. Sadik-Khan emphasized that it wouldn’t have been possible to accomplish so much in such a short time frame if it weren’t for the original stroke of genius: the decision to test things out to see what succeeds.

“The temporary materials are important because we were able to show how it worked,” she says. “I work for a data-driven mayor, as you know, so it was all about the data. If it worked better for traffic, if it was better for mobility, better for business, we would keep it. And if it didn’t work, no harm, no foul, we could put it back the way that it was because these were temporary materials, and that was a very big part of the buy-in.”

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NACTO Urban Street Design Guide Sets Out to Change the DNA of Our Cities

Innovative street designs like this low-cost pedestrian plaza in lower Manhattan can provide more space for people and protect them from vehicle traffic. Photo: NACTO

In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide.

NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has shied away from in its engineering bible, known as the “green book.” The Federal Highway Administration has even endorsed NACTO’s guide, and the agency is currently drafting its own bicycle facilities guidance, which will likely fall somewhere in between.

The Street Design Guide goes much further, giving engineering guidance on everything from crosswalks (zebra-striped, please, for greater visibility) to parklets (go ahead, usurp a few parking spots!) and from contra-flow bus lanes (bicycles optional) to slow zones (speed humps, tables, and cushions). As NYC DOT Commissioner and NACTO President Janette Sadik-Khan said, it’s a new DNA for city streets.

Those are treatments you won’t find in AASHTO’s green book. “Most of the design guidance that we work with on the city side is really targeted toward suburban areas and rural areas and is not really designed to meet the challenges of our streets,” Sadik-Khan told a standing-room-only crowd last night at the Newseum in Washington, DC. “So many things have changed in 50 years, but our streets haven’t, and our design guidance certainly hasn’t.”

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NYC’s First Speed Cameras Will Go Into Effect When Kids Head Back to School

Mayor Bloomberg joined Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and NYPD Chief of Transportation James Tuller outside a Crown Heights high school this morning to announce the impending launch of the city’s first automated speed enforcement program. Cameras issuing fines for drivers who exceed the speed limit by 10 mph or more will begin operating on September 9, when students head back to school, though for the first few weeks the program will only send violators warnings.

On Eastern Parkway this morning, Bloomberg addressed the need to enforce the NYC speed limit. Photo: @JohnSurico

Speeding was the leading cause of traffic deaths in NYC last year, contributing to 81 fatal crashes. Still, the state law enabling automated enforcement of the speed limit — which passed after several previous attempts had died in Albany — includes several restrictions. The city has just 20 cameras to work with, and they can only be placed within a quarter-mile of schools. They can’t be operated at times when classes or after-school activities are not in session. On the plus side, the city will be able to move the cameras to different locations, providing some flexibility that should help reduce egregious speeding on a greater share of NYC’s 6,000-mile street network.

To prevent motorists from selectively slowing down near known camera locations, the city is not disclosing the locations of these enforcement cameras. However, the site of today’s press event — W.E.B. DuBois High School on Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue — is “a candidate to receive speed camera technology nearby due to a high crash rate in its vicinity,” according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

“Keeping streets safe for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians is one of the most important public safety challenges any government faces,” Bloomberg said in the announcement. “Our streets are the safest they have ever been, due in large part to our enforcement efforts and innovative traffic engineering that have brought traffic fatalities to record lows. Curbing speeding around schools will help us continue to make our City’s streets safer for everyone.”

The cameras will start monitoring speeds on the first day of the school year, September 9, but the mayor’s office says the $50 fines for violators won’t start until a few weeks later:

DOT will begin the five-year program with a combination of fixed and mobile cameras at unspecified locations, which will be determined based upon factors such as crash and injury data, rates of speed and road geometry. During the initial weeks of the program and in order to send a message to speeders, DOT will only issue warning notices to motorists found on camera to be speeding in excess of 10 or more miles above the posted speed limit before eventually issuing $50 fines for the offense. Violations would be issued to the vehicle owner and will be adjudicated by the New York Parking Violations Bureau.

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NYC Aims to Make the Most of Its Handful of School-Zone Speed Cameras

Details concerning New York City’s first-ever speed camera program are scarce. To slow down as many speeding drivers as possible with the small number of cameras permitted by Albany, this is as it should be.

Walk to School Day in Harlem in 2011. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

On Tuesday, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan joined Mayor Bloomberg at P.S. 81 in Riverdale, where 96 percent of motorists observed for a DOT school area survey were speeding. While a camera or cameras will presumably be deployed to slow drivers around P.S. 81, it’s one of 100 schools around which 75 percent or more of drivers speed [PDF]. To cover even a fraction of NYC school zones with a relative handful of cameras, flexibility is key.

Here’s Sadik-Khan, as quoted by WNYC and the Daily News: “The cameras are mobile so we’ll be able to move them around and address high-speed locations that may change over time. Any school where there’s excessive speeding will be fair game. One of the deterrents is that people don’t necessarily know where they are.”

The bill passed by the State Legislature limits NYC to the use of 20 cameras at a time. Cameras will be operable only from one hour before the school day begins to one hour after it ends, and from 30 minutes before to 30 minutes after school activities. A driver can go up to 10 mph over the speed limit without getting a ticket, and camera-enforced penalties will be capped at $50 — billed to the vehicle owner — regardless of how fast an offending motorist drives. No license points or insurance penalties will be attached. The legislature placed a five-year sunset clause on the program.

DOT told us that, since the system will be handled by a vendor, operational details have yet to be worked out. But a look at other mobile speed camera programs sheds some light on how they might work in NYC. Mobile speed cameras are often mounted in SUVs or other vehicles, and localities might or might not disclose where they are, or where they might be. Washington, DC, uses a combination of mobile and fixed cameras. The MPD posts a list of six dozen “enforcement zones,” most identified by block number, where cameras may be at any given time.

The Albany speed camera bill says NYC “may” install signage to notify motorists that cameras are in use, and warning motorists that they are about to enter a monitored school zone. So it could be that motorists know only that cameras will be used near schools.

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Bloomberg Was on Fire at Yesterday’s Bike-Share Presser

Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

Yesterday’s Citi Bike announcement was maybe the last occasion to see Michael Bloomberg answer a whole string of bike-related questions from the NYC press corps in one sitting. The mayor has a reputation for jousting with reporters at these events, sometimes more crankily than others. Yesterday he was combative but clearly enjoying himself. He had solid responses for just about all the questions that came at him.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A with Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. In most cases the reporters weren’t clearly audible from my vantage point, so the questions are paraphrased.

The first question was about dedicating officers to ticketing Citi Bike users.

Michael R. Bloomberg: Everyone’s going to be more aware of this. I’m sure there will be people who will, just like they are today, take their bicycles and do things that break the law. This will shock you but there are even people in automobiles who do the same thing. When you take a look at the number of people killed in automobiles, it sort of dwarfs everything put together on the road. I’m sure there’ll be some teething pains, there will be some people who need a wake-up call, and we’ll try to do it to the best extent we can.

Next question was about maintaining the system and referred to the Citi Bike that was stolen Sunday evening while crews were setting up stations.

Janette Sadik-Khan: It was taken off the truck as it was being loaded, not from the station itself.

MRB: I’m sure that’s the first bicycle that’s been stolen in this city. So I’m sure we’ll go back and look at your coverage, and you’ve been covering every one of those, is that correct? And it was recovered, incidentally. And it wasn’t ours, it was the private sector’s, not government property. Somehow or other you can make a bad story out of that, I don’t know, but we’ll pay attention, and it will be fascinating to see how clever you are.

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New York City Sets in Motion America’s Largest Bike-Share System

Mayor Bloomberg addresses the press corps with Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson by his side. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

Five years ago, the New York City Department of Transportation signaled its interest in creating an extensive bike-share system “to accommodate a wide range of potential short trips.” Now New Yorkers have that system at their fingertips. With today’s launch of Citi Bike, there’s a new travel option in the mix – 6,000 bikes at 330 stations that will extend the reach of the transit system and expand access to the point-to-point convenience of bicycling.

“I am thrilled to declare that as of this moment, Citi Bike, the largest bike-share network in the country, is officially launched,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced at a press event outside City Hall this morning. Touting a 75 percent reduction in the cycling injury rate over the past decade and the improved safety outcomes for pedestrians along the city’s protected bike lanes, Bloomberg said that “Citi Bike will make our streets safer,” and reiterated the city’s commitment to ramp up to a 10,000-bike/600-station system.

While transportation funding stagnates and mega-projects run billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, the Bloomberg administration has delivered a new transit option at minimal public expense, with the potential to expand relatively quickly into other parts of the city. So far, more than 15,000 New Yorkers have signed up for the $95 annual pass, and about 13,000 now have access to the system using Citi Bike key fobs. On Sunday, June 2, the system will open up to weekly and daily members.

The culmination of intense study, planning, and public outreach, the bike-share launch marks the birth of a new transit network. “It’s a rare thing to see a brand new transportation system become unveiled before our eyes,” said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “We have the A Train, and the New York City cab, and the Staten Island Ferry, and now Citi Bike joins the ranks of the transportation icon family in New York City.”

Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan prepare to ride for the cameras. New York City bicycling has perhaps never been in the public eye more than today. Photo: Dmitry Gudkov

Within the service area, which at the moment extends from 59th Street in Manhattan to Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, bike-share gives New Yorkers the ability to go directly from point A to point B without the expense, hassle, and space-gobbling footprint of driving a car. The bike-share option is especially well-suited for some of the city’s most vexing types of trips — like getting across town or going anywhere on a weekend when subway service is disrupted. Soon GPS units embedded in each bike will provide a wealth of data about how New Yorkers use the system.

From the outset, Sadik-Khan, DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, and DOT bike-share program director Kate Fillin-Yeh strove to make a system that would be big enough to succeed. Since the bike stations are sited closely together, subscribers know they will be able to find a dock near their destination, as long as it’s in the service area. And because the service area covers a big chunk of the city (though it could, of course, grow considerably over time), including the biggest job centers, a huge number of short trips are now feasible using the system.

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Vacca Looks to Squeeze $ From Bikes, But Won’t Touch the Price of Parking

The headline from today’s City Council transportation committee oversight hearing was Janette Sadik-Khan’s announcement that the official launch date for Citi Bike is Memorial Day. Meanwhile, for Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, it was another occasion to flail at bikes and defend cheap parking under the guise of holding a budget hearing.

Council Members Vacca and Recchia want to make sure that cyclists are a revenue source for the city — and that the parking status quo is maintained. Photos: NYC Council

Sadik-Khan kicked off the hearing with prepared testimony on the agency’s $732.9 million 2014 executive budget, including everything from public plazas and Select Bus Service upgrades to bridge repair and street lights.

But the bulk of council members’ questions revolved around bikes. The first came from an incredulous Vacca, who challenged Sadik-Khan’s statement that more than 70 percent of New Yorkers support bike-share. ”How do you know that?” he asked, before she pointed him to polling from Quinnipiac University.

After asking about the $9.4 million budgeted for bicycle network expansion — 80 percent of which is covered by federal funds — and questioning whether a safety plan for the Grand Concourse should include bike lanes (Sadik-Khan noted that the street already has them), Vacca came to the heart of his questioning: How can the city get more revenue from bike riders?

“I didn’t see any projections in your budget based on revenue from the commercial cycling program,” Vacca said, referencing a package of laws the City Council passed last year that create new mandates for delivery cyclists and their employers. But it’s not just food delivery cyclists that Vacca sees as a revenue source. “When will we see revenue into the city’s coffers from bike-share?” he asked.

“[The Office of Management and Budget] does not include funding for new programs,” Sadik-Khan said. “They need to have a year to understand what the budget impact is going to be.” She added that any bike-share profits will be split evenly between the city and system operator Alta.

Finance committee chair Domenic Recchia, meanwhile, said he’s concerned about reduced parking revenue as a result of Citi Bike stations being installed on the street. ”Less than one percent of parking spots were removed,” Sadik-Khan said, adding that not all on-street bike-share stations are in formerly metered spaces. ”The contract provides that the operator has to make up the lost revenue to the city.”

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