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Posts from the "The Conscious Commuter" Category

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Positively 3rd Street

Did 9th Street in Park Slope formerly have sidewalks as generous as 3rd Street?

Strolling up 3rd Street in Park Slope from 7th Avenue toward Prospect Park, it’s easy to see this is one of the most magnificent streets in what is, let’s face it, one of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city. The homes, built in the late 19th century and often clad in white stone, are set back further. The double flanking of trees lend a calming tone. A bike lane is set along one side of the one-way street.

But what’s most luxurious about this street, if not consciously noticed by its users, are the expansive sidewalks, about 8 paces, which is roughly twice as wide as the sidewalks on surrounding streets. The wide sidewalks on 3rd Street provide room for several people to walk side by side in one direction, without playing the game of dodge a person so common in New York. It’s a strolling street.

If you walk south from 3th Street for just six blocks, you come to a very different sort of street, 9th Street. It’s probably one of the least pleasant streets in the Slope. The sidewalks are narrow. The car portion of the street is wide. A torrent of cars and trucks pour up and down it, making their way to and from the Gowanus Canal, Court Street, and Red Hook. The street has bike lanes on each side, but this is still a chaotic and risky place to cycle, given the trucks and double-parking.

But here’s the thing. Did 9th Street used to be like 3rd Street? My eye, somewhat attuned to urban geography, sees evidence that the answer is yes. Both of the streets, measured by the distance from the homes on each side to each other, are wider than surrounding streets. Both are flanked by particularly elegant townhouses.  I wonder if 9th Street, now so chaotic and workhorse like, used to be a grand strolling street leading up to the prominent entrance to Prospect Park where the statue of General Lafayette awaits you.

What I bet happened is that at some point in the last century the city grabbed some of the width from the sidewalks and setbacks of 9th Street, and gave it over to cars, converting 9th street into a car artery, decidedly unpleasant. I bet the political power of the residents of these beautiful townhouses had reached a nadir, allowing the city to decrease the charm of their street and thus their property values.

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Streetcars in Seattle, Or Why America Should Mind Its Transit Gaps

The rider went down -- Boom! -- just as she turned to see if the streetcar was getting close to her. Turning to look was her undoing, because her wheel got caught in the big gap between rail and street, toppling her hard. The big blue streetcar was only ten feet or so behind her, but luckily was slowing down and did not run her over. Scary though.

Shaken but apparently not badly hurt, the rider, a young woman in a light blouse and wearing a helmet, stood up to be greeted by the streetcar conductor, who offered not sympathy but angry hectoring. Didn’t she know that cyclists were not supposed to cycle in the streetcar lane?

Standing by and watching all this while preparing to board the streetcar in Seattle, I could only shake my head in sadness. We have such a hard time doing mass transit right in this country, particularly outside New York City. Seattle's shiny new streetcar “system” was essentially brand new, but its flaws were already readily apparent.

Let’s start with the tracks. Isn’t there some system possible that does not leave what looked like a three or four inch gap between the track and the street it is imbedded in? I’m sure loyal Streetblog readers will supply me with the make and model of something. I remember seeing that old footage from Barcelona that showed all those cyclists swerving this way and that in front of the streetcar, with apparently no fear of getting caught in the track gap. Can’t we do that today? It certainly doesn’t make sense to exclude cyclists from a whole lane of a street, one that could actually double as a bike lane if built correctly.

Then there are the other problems.

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Barcelona, 100 Years Ago: A Model for Streets Today?

This film, as featured on YouTube via Infrastructurist, shows the streets of Barcelona a century ago, taken from the front window of a tram going down the street. It's an amazing film. The central avenues of this Catalan city are so vital, so alive, a mix of every activity. Then the film compares the old streets to the same streets today. Quite a comparison.

The streets a century ago illustrate the principal of “tout a la rue,” meaning everything into the street. Cyclists, cars, pedestrians, streetcars, kids. And of course horses. Seems to work.

Interesting how bold the cyclists are in 1907. I wonder why they don’t seem to fear being tipped over by the streetcar tracks? They ride right across them, often at only a slight angle, and don’t get channeled into them. Were tracks built somehow with less of a gap between track and street? Were the tires of the bicycles fatter?

The views of the same streets today are distressing. I love Barcelona. It's one of my favorite cities. But the streets of today seem lifeless and sterile. Could they really be that barren today? Maybe the films from today were shot in the early morning, when few people were around. The streets certainly seemed very alive when I was there in 1994. Still, it's no doubt true that even the most active streets today are less so than those of a century ago. It's mostly the fault of the car, which we have given our streets over to so completely.

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Americans, David Brooks, and “The Dutch Option”

denver_map.jpgDenver's FasTracks transit expansion will add more than 100 miles of rail and BRT service.
Ben Fried got it exactly right about the errors that riddled Tuesday's David Brooks column. Brooks was so far off the mark, though, that it's worth another look at the ways he misled readers.

The core of his argument that Americans don’t like cities rested on this survey by Pew Research Center. The survey found that Americans, when asked where they would most like to move to, named Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Orlando, Tampa and San Antonio as their top ten, in that order of preference. Because these cities are mostly in the west and the south, Brooks concluded that Americans are interested in living in, well, the west and the south. But then he went further, citing it as general evidence of America’s anti-urban tastes.

What Brooks didn't address -- and which I have a hard time believing he didn’t know, given his usual informedness -- was that most of the 10 cities in the poll are pursuing pro-urban agendas with a vengeance. They are building lots of light rail lines. They are re-configuring streets to make them more walkable and bikeable. They are steering clear of policies and projects that would encourage more driving.

Nowhere is that more true than Denver, the number one city in the poll, which supplied the headline to Brooks' column, "I Dream of Denver." Well, a few years ago, this object of American aspirations voted to approve what is probably the largest new mass transit system in the United States. The city of Denver and a bunch of neighboring political jurisdictions managed to come together and agree to build a half dozen light rail and commuter rail lines at once. The metro area will end up with a complete rail-based transit system in one fell swoop, without having to proceed line-by-line over decades, like most cities.

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A Broken Hip and the Merits of Scooters

"Ouch" was my first thought, as I lay on the ice in my building's parking lot, my scooter and black shoulder bag some feet away from me. What I would later learn was a broken hip screamed for my attention in a strange but compelling new language.

My second thought was, "It's not like you didn't know this could happen."

As readers of this Conscious Commuter column will remember, my very first day on a Xootr scooter -- about a year ago -- began with a near back-breaking accident. I realized then that scooters, despite being amazingly fun and really practical transportation devices for short distances, are inherently unstable, especially if you are six foot seven. They are tippy. Although they roll along easily, and are easily steered, small movements up top can tip them backward, forward or to the side. In addition, their tiny wheels can be stopped dead by a small piece of debris or a rock in the road, causing a major spill.

None of this is matters much if you are three and a half feet tall. My four-year-old son Max has no problem, and seems to recover easily from near catastrophic accidents. And if he does go down, it's not that big a deal. But when I went down, it was a much bigger deal.

I thought of all this as I lay on the icy asphalt last Friday morning, in 18-degree weather, waiting for the ambulance to come.

My son Max performed admirably in the crisis. We had been on our way to his school, our usual morning routine: him on his Razor scooter, me on my much larger Xootr. We weren't far from our building, an old converted warehouse in Prospect Heights, when I hit a patch of ice that I failed to notice while rounding a curve. I went down.

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On a Scooter, Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’

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My guitar saved my spine.

I was scootering along on my new Cruz Ultra Xootr scooter, mentally writing this column about how incredible this new (to me) mode of transportation was, how it was even better than a bicycle in many ways, how it showed how graduated transportation is or should be, how it showed we need to travel at different velocities and in different vehicle sizes, and how thoroughfares should support this, when suddenly I was flying in the air, soon to land on my posterior.

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On Potato Omelets and Winter Cycling

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A Spanish tortilla, unlike the Mexican version, is essentially a potato omelet. You fry some diced-up onions and potatoes in oil, and then pour in some beaten egg. Flip it over, and voila, you have a tasty, round golden thing to cut into slices and eat.

Back when I was living in Spain some 25 years ago, I made them all the time and my American friends and I marveled at what a tasty, nutritious and cheap food it was. We vowed, when we returned to the states, to make them often. When I returned to the states, I made a Spanish tortilla probably once, maybe twice, and then never again.

Why? I still love Spanish tortillas. The ingredients are readily abundant. And I love to cook. But something about the context I’m in, the culture to use the C word, does not induce or encourage me to do so.

I think about Spanish tortillas, and my lack of making them, when I have repeatedly chosen not to do something else these last few months, which is ride my bicycle around in the dead of winter. Somehow mounting my wheeled steed is just too big a hurdle when the air is freezing and the skies often gray. Very quickly over the winter, I stopped even thinking about riding my bicycle to work or to drop my son at daycare or to shop. I began walking and taking the subway more.

But would I make these same choices if my fellow citizens here in New York were making different choices?

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Let’s Chop Up Superblocks

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Forest City's Atlantic Yards project would create two massive superblocks in Prospect Hts., Brooklyn

Portland, Oregon, which has ascended the ranks of cities judged most walkable, bikable, and urbane, benefits mightily from its small 200-foot square blocks, which provide businesses more street frontage and people more streets on which to bike, cycle and walk. These short blocks did not create Oregon's and Portland's growth management and pro-transit policies, but they gave them terrain on which these policies could take root.

Contrast that to Salt Lake City. Its founder Brigham Young for some reason opted for one of the widest urban grids anywhere. (I've read he wanted teams of cattle to be able to turn around?) Its streets are laid out in a grid where each blocks is 660 feet square - which means that nine Portland blocks to fill up one Salt Lake superblock. This makes getting around Salt Lake City on foot very difficult, as I can personally attest.

New York City is somewhere in the middle, at least in Manhattan. Its numbered streets are set at a pedestrian friendly 200 feet apart while its avenues are set at a pedestrian unfriendly 800 feet apart, except where broken in two by Lexington, Madison or other mid-grid streets. This deficiency has long been noted, so if anything the city should have a set policy creating new streets when possible, and so to create shorter, more pedestrian friendly blocks.

But that is not the case. Instead the city and state often encourage one of the deadest institutions, the Superblock. Not content with blocks that are too large already, the city and state often team up to create even bigger blocks, and not even pedestrian friendly versions of those.

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From Mad Messenger to More Peaceful Cyclist

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Alex Marshall some time in the not-too-distant future...

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a bicycle courier.

It was in the fall of 1979, during the semester I took off from college to start a rock band in Washington DC with friends. When not playing guitar in a roach-infested apartment in Takoma Park, Md., I cruised the streets for a courier company, picking up thick envelopes from the American Petroleum Institute and other public-spirited institutions and taking them over to Capitol Hill. Stuff like that.

I think about that sometimes these days, as I poke along Bergen Street Brooklyn, or Lafayette Avenue in Manhattan, on my mountain bike with my bad back, weak right knee, and other afflictions.

Bicycle messengering had a certain cachet back then, although fewer people know about it. It had not evolved into the almost cult-like institution I sense it has become now.

Does bicycle couriering teach you anything practical? A little, although not much.

What it does mostly is to acquaint one with cycling in traffic, which is useful in New York City. You either become comfortable with cycling amid a herd of cars, or you stop. Despite two minor accidents with cars while being a courier, I came to love mixing it up with city traffic.

I can still feel that urge to merge now course through my middle-aged body, when a car cuts me off or I'm jockeying for position at a traffic light. It's something to watch out for. Through the lens of age, I can see now that good cycling, safe cycling and civil cycling comes from striking a balance between aggression and passivity. Too much of either is not healthy or safe for the people around you.

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Rocky Road

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Cycling intimately acquaints you with every bump, slice, crease, divot, ledge, ripple and of course pothole in a street, because not noticing means you might get thrown off your steed into bone-breaking and life ending car traffic.

While riding along Lafayette Street in Manhattan, or Bergen Street in Brooklyn, or essentially anywhere in New York City, what I notice is surfaces that can only be described as poor and frankly dangerous for someone on a bike.

New York City is not the exception in this. It's been true in every city I have ever lived in in the United States, which includes some geographic and cultural diversity. Abroad, that's not so much the case, particularly in the prosperous countries of Western Europe. They notice the difference when the travel here, let me assure you. A few years ago when I was living in Boston a friend from Germany surveyed the pot-holed streets in Cambridge around the prestigious university of Harvard with some amazement.

"It reminds me of a Third-world country," he said with a grin. "Apparently no one cares!"

I don't think that's the case, but streets here do seem unusually bad. Why is that so?

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