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Will Roosevelt Island Reach Its Potential as a Bikeable Neighborhood?

Photo: Stephen Miller

While it doesn’t quite live up to the original vision as a car-free oasis, Roosevelt Island should be an easy place to foster low-stress bicycling. Photo: Stephen Miller

By now, it seems almost all of Roosevelt Island’s 12,300 residents have heard about Anna Maria Moström, the cyclist left brain dead last week after a bus driver struck her while failing to yield during a turn. The quiet island, shaped into a mostly residential neighborhood by a 1970s redevelopment effort, has long fostered the feeling of an urban village. Despite its natural advantages and a decent number of bike riders, cycling has never really boomed on Roosevelt Island. For the past year, a joint effort from Bike New York and the state authority overseeing the island has sought to change that. Even before last week’s crash rattled islanders, many residents here didn’t feel comfortable on two wheels.

Two miles long and no wider than the distance between two Manhattan avenues, Roosevelt Island today is  connected to the rest of New York by an aerial tram, a subway stop, and a bridge to Queens (the Queensboro Bridge passes over the island but does not connect to it). Because it is effectively a big cul-de-sac, traffic volumes are low and drivers travel slowly. While there are more cars than envisioned in the 1970s master plan, which called for a mostly car-free island, Roosevelt Island remains a contrast with the rest of the car-clogged city. The speed limit on the island is just 15 mph.

Despite these advantages, bicycling has struggled to blossom under the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state body overseeing the neighborhood’s day-to-day services. But in recent years, RIOC has become more interested in bicycling. A few years ago, the corporation inventoried bike racks on the island, and despite occasional missteps like an overzealous program that resulted in wholesale removal of parked bikes, continues to show interest. “This is a family-friendly place, and we have a lot of cyclists,” said Erica Spencer-El, a community relations specialist at RIOC.

RIOC hosted a temporary demonstration from bike-share provider B-Cycle in 2010, before the advent of Citi Bike. It was popular, but RIOC’s board has put future discussion of bike-share on hold. “We were putting the carriage before the horse. Our infrastructure is not ready,” Spencer-El said. She pointed around the island’s streets, which have a hodge-podge of signs and markings. Some crosswalks include stop signs; others only tell drivers and cyclists to yield. There is no consistent street design.

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Peter Norton: We Can Learn From the Movement To Enshrine Car Dependence

It used to be normal to play in the streets. We're just one revolution away from being able to do that again. Photo via Peter Norton

It used to be normal to play in the streets. Photo via Peter Norton

Yesterday, we published part one of my interview with Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. We talked about whether the push for infrastructure investment is always code for increasing car capacity, and how the Vision Zero campaign bears the legacy of 100-year-old movements to make streets safe for everyone.

Norton will be speaking on November 13 at the opening reception of Transportation Alternatives’ national Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in New York City.

Below is the audio of our conversation, which went on long after this written transcript. Feel free to take a listen, and forgive the background noise — we were talking in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, one of DC’s most iconic urban green spaces.

Here is a transcript of part two of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We keep calling [the current movement for Vision Zero and livable streets] a “fundamental restructuring,” and I’m curious whether you think that’s accurate. What you’re talking about at the beginning of the last century, which you wrote about in “Fighting Traffic,” was a much more fundamental questioning — because it was new — of the role of cars on streets and in cities. And I’m wondering if you think what’s happening now really gets to those questions or whether it’s just, “Oh, can we just have a little space; we just want some accommodation; we want the buses to be a little better, we want a little bike lane”?

Such an interesting question, because I think that dilemma that we’re in right now in 2014, between fundamental rethinking and just fixes here and fixes there, is the same dilemma that advocates of the automobile found themselves in, especially in the early- to mid-1920s. At first a lot of them said, “We need to take the street as it is and do some fine tuning, things like optimize the traffic signal timings–”

The same solutions we’re looking at!

Exactly! The first synchronized traffic lights for motor vehicles were timed in Chicago in 1926, and at the meeting I was just in, they were still talking about getting the timing right.

Then there were others who began to say, “Stop talking about just retooling the streets to make cars fit in them better; we need to actually re-concieve this.” There was an editorial in Engineering News Record in 1920 — Engineering News Record then and now is the journal of the civil engineers — and the editorial said, “We need a fundamental re-conception of what a city street is for.”

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Will Miami Take the First Step Toward Parking Reform?

It’s been a long time coming, says Felipe Azenha at Transit Miami, but finally the topic of parking reform is getting some attention in Miami.

Proposed parking reforms would be a boon for housing affordability in Miami. Photo: Mark Hogan via Flickr

Eliminating parking requirements for small buildings in Miami could lead to larger reforms — and the elimination of bigger garages like this one — later on. Photo: Mark Hogan via Flickr

A public hearing next week will consider the elimination of minimum parking requirements for small buildings along transit corridors. Azena says it’s just the thing this car-clogged, increasingly-unaffordable city needs:

Minimum parking requirements are killing good urban development in Miami. Luckily, there has been a push to eliminate parking requirements for small urban buildings (<10,000 sq ft) in recent months.  This is a good first step in the right direction if Miami really aspires to become a walkable and less autocentric city.

Minimum parking requirements perpetuate more automobile use and it also makes housing less affordable since the cost of building and maintaining required parking is passed on to renters and buyers. A few months ago Zillow released a housing report  that cited Miami as the 2nd most expensive city for renters.  The average Miami resident spends 43.2% of their income on rent.

Combine expensive housing with lack of public transit and minimum parking requirements that only serve to perpetuate the use of the automobile; it’s no wonder why Miami is one of the most expensive car dominated cities in the US.

A better move for Miami would be to entirely eliminate parking requirements and let developers decide how much parking to build. But in the meantime, this proposal is a step in the right direction, Azenha says.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Wash Cycle maps out the locations of bike fatalities in the nation’s capital. Urban Milwaukee reports that universal driver’s ed has been proposed to help combat racial segregation in that region. And Greater Greater Washington says that DC’s regional planners aren’t acting boldly enough to achieve local climate action goals.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Cy Vance Charges Cab Driver Who Killed Cooper Stock With Careless Driving Infraction (News)
  • Cuomo Hires Private Attorneys to Fight Feds on Tappan Zee Clean Water Loan (LoHud, CapNY Pro)
  • Uber and Lyft Protest TLC Rule to Prohibit Drivers From Operating as Free Agents (CapNYCrain’s)
  • Cuomo Is All About Improving Service for New York City Transit Users (Crain’sWSJ)
  • Times Profiles Harbor Ring Campaign for Verrazano Pedestrian and Cyclist Access
  • Brooklyn Bureau Gauges Reaction to de Blasio’s Broadway Junction Development Plans
  • Resident Group Wants Public Plaza to Block Illegal Truck Traffic on West End Avenue (DNA)
  • Housing Org Proposes High Line-Style Park and Affordable Units for West Harlem (DNA)
  • Idiot Truck Drivers Will Soon Slam Into Steel Beam Rather Than FDR Overpass (News)
  • Placing Traffic Cones Around Your Free Curbside Parking Spot Is Apparently a Step Too Far (Post, FIPS)
  • Motorists Suing Cyclists They’ve Run Over — It’s a Thing (Gothamist)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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Only One Week Left Until The Streets Ball — Get Your Tickets Now

A quick reminder: The annual fundraiser for Streetsblog and Streetfilms is just seven days away and space is limited. Lock up your spot and get a ticket today — prices start at $50 or just $25 for students.

If you’ve come to the Streets Ball before, you know it’s a special night where hundreds of New Yorkers who care about safe streets, better transit, and a more livable city come together under one roof. And if you’ve never been to one, we’d love to see you next Thursday for the best Streets Ball yet, as we honor former NYC DOT policy director Jon Orcutt and Families For Safe Streets.

The Streets Ball is our biggest fundraising event of the year and powers us through the next 12 months. Come out to the Invisible Dog off the Bergen Street F/G stop next Thursday and join us for food, drink, music, and the great company of people working toward livable streets for NYC.

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NYPD Recommended a Mandatory Helmet Law in 2011

Three years ago, NYPD recommended a mandatory helmet law for all cyclists. While the proposal gained traction among some elected officials, it did not receive support from the Bloomberg administration. The de Blasio administration said yesterday that it won’t back a mandatory helmet law, either. While a helmet law isn’t on the agenda now, it’s a troubling sign that NYPD was so recently in favor of a policy with no proven safety benefit but plenty of potential to discourage cycling.

An NYPD officer rides without a bike helmet. Photo: Liz Patek/Flickr

Three years ago, NYPD recommended a mandatory helmet law for all NYC cyclists. Photo: Liz Patek/Flickr

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan revealed the 2011 helmet law plan at a Vision Zero symposium hosted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health yesterday, and the information was confirmed by a City Hall spokesperson. Other remarks Chan made at the event indicate a disturbing willingness to blame cyclists for getting injured or killed in traffic.

The Vision Zero event featured public health researchers as well as city and federal officials. Outside of Chan’s comments, helmets were discussed only once during the event — a brief mention in discussion of a youth cycling survey, according to notes provided by the Mailman School’s communications department [PDF].

No city where cycling is widespread has improved bike safety with a mandatory helmet law. By sending the message that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, helmet laws have been shown to discourage people from riding bikes. This puts a damper on the “safety in numbers” effect — the link between higher cycling rates and lower injury rates that researchers attribute to motorists becoming acclimated to cyclists on the street. The net effect is that mandatory helmet laws don’t make biking safer.

Helmet laws also distract from the more important street design and enforcement efforts that make a real dent in traffic violence. It’s telling that helmets are not required in any of the European cities that have been most successful at both encouraging more cycling and reducing traffic injury rates. Closer to home, helmet laws have not proven effective at reducing injury rates in Canada.

The ample evidence that helmet mandates are at odds with the growth of low-risk cycling didn’t stop NYPD’s legislative affairs unit from recommending a helmet law in 2011. Helmets are already required in New York for children age 13 and younger; the police wanted to expand that requirement to all bike riders. The next year, Council Member David Greenfield proposed a mandatory helmet law. Comptroller John Liu followed suit in 2013 with a recommendation to require helmets for bike-share users.

While none of those proposals went anywhere, the fact that NYPD was pursuing a discredited approach to public safety so recently raises questions about whether Vision Zero is only a skin-deep policy at the department. Has NYPD devoted any resources to researching how other police departments have successfully driven down bicyclist injury and fatality rates? Can the department competently safeguard New Yorkers who bike?

Other remarks from Chan yesterday raise more red flags. He said that bicyclists contribute to 74 percent of bike crashes and that 97 percent of cyclists who died in 2004 weren’t wearing helmets. Streetsblog sent multiple requests to NYPD asking where Chan got this data and to clarify the department’s position on helmet laws. When I called to follow up, a spokesperson said the department is “unable to accommodate your request at this time.”

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Q&A With Peter Norton: History Is on the Side of Vision Zero

speed-demon

Public safety posters like these fought against the pervasive violence of motor vehicles on public city streets in the first part of the 20th century. Images via Peter Norton

Last week, a bunch of bigwigs gathered to talk infrastructure in one of Washington’s most historic and prestigious sites, the Hay-Adams Hotel across the street from the White House. I was offered an opportunity to interview former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a host of other VIPs. But — no offense to those guys — the person I wanted to talk to was Peter Norton, listed as the “lead scholar” of the Miller Center’s new commission to “develop innovative, bipartisan ideas on how to create and sustain middle-class jobs through infrastructure policy.”

Peter Norton. Photo: ##http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2006/20060627PeterNorton.html##UVA##

Peter Norton. Photo: UVA

Norton is a professor at the University of Virginia (where the Miller Center is housed) and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. The book is a chronicle of the battle over who and what streets were for as automobiles were proliferating at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a conversation worth revisiting today.

We had that conversation on a shady park bench in Lafayette Square, one of Washington’s most iconic green spaces, between the Hay-Adams and the White House.

If our interview piques your interest, you can catch Norton in person at the opening reception of the upcoming Vision Zero for Cities Symposium, a national gathering organized by Transportation Alternatives in New York City next month (November 13-15), where public officials and street safety advocates will strategize about “how to achieve Vision Zero in cities around the world.”

First let me ask about the Infrastructure campaign that you’re part of here as the lead scholar –

That’s the title!

I have questions about the push for infrastructure investment from the point of view of someone who is skeptical of increasing car infrastructure. Not to start on a negative note, but a lot of the push for increased infrastructure investment is not necessarily choosy about whether that infrastructure goes toward sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly, city-friendly infrastructure, or whether it’s highways and cars.

Right. When I was invited to this thing, that question that you’re asking was foremost in my mind. And you find yourself thinking, I could stay out of it as a way of saying I don’t really think these discussions are being held in an inclusive way that includes all kinds of ideas, including ones that haven’t been on the table before — or I could join in and see if I could work in some of those less orthodox perspectives. And I chose the latter. I had some opportunities over the last two days to work in some points of view that weren’t being represented there.

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Eyes on the Street: West End Avenue Gets Its Road Diet

West End Avenue at 85th Street. Photo: John Simpson

West End Avenue at 85th Street. Photo: John Simpson

After Cooper Stock and Jean Chambers were killed in West End Avenue crosswalks by turning drivers earlier this year, DOT unveiled a 35-block road diet for the dangerous Upper West Side street. Now, the plan is on the ground, and pedestrian islands are set to be installed within a month.

The redesign is a standard four- to three-lane road diet, slimming from two lanes in each direction to one lane per direction with center turn lanes. Bike lanes not included.

Streetsblog reader John Simpson sent in photos of the new street design on the ground between 85th and 86th Streets. The repaving and striping appears to be mostly complete.

Concrete pedestrian refuge islands are planned for 72nd, 79th, 95th, and 97th Streets. On Tuesday, DOT staff told the Manhattan Community Board 7 transportation committee that islands will be installed at 95th and 97th Streets “within the month,” reports Emily Frost at DNAinfo. Islands at 72nd and 79th were added to the plan after complaints that the project didn’t include enough of them. Update: DOT says a pedestrian island at 72nd Street will be installed next year, while neckdowns will be built at 79th Street in the coming months as part of a Safe Routes to School program.

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Dallas Transport Agency Cooks Up Fishy Traffic Projections for a New Road

We’ve reported on the way state agencies justify spending on expensive road expansions by overestimating the traffic that will materialize in the future. In an encouraging sign, one local press outfit is calling out the fishy traffic projections before a project gets built.

Image: Northeastgateway.com

The regional transportation agency for Dallas justifies this highway project with traffic projections that far exceed even the estimates from the notorious sprawl enablers at Texas DOT. Map: Northeastgateway.com

Brandon Formby of the Dallas Morning News‘ Transportation Blog (yes, it’s a long-time member of the Streetsblog Network) has been taking a critical look at traffic projections from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Big D’s regional planning agency. Residents who oppose the 28-mile Northeast Gateway-Blackland Prairie toll road – planned for a rural area between Garland and Greenville — question the assumptions behind the project.

The numbers certainly do look suspicious. Here are some excerpts from Formby’s reporting (emphasis added):

  • “Some of the council of governments predictions are hundreds of percentage points higher than the Texas Department of Transportation’s forecasts.”
  • “NCTCOG predicts that 72,300 drivers will use State Highway 66 at County Road 6 in Lavon in 2035. That’s six times as many as the 12,000 drivers the agency says used it last year. It’s also more than triple the 22,880 drivers TxDOT estimates for the same spot in 2030, the closest year to the NCTCOG estimates for which the state has forecasts.”
  • “While the regional agency’s traffic estimates for spots in the corridor predict anywhere from a 70 percent to 503 percent increase in drivers, the state predicts population increases in the four counties to be between 23.3 percent and 65.1 percent.”

Formby reports that NCTCOG has been reluctant to divulge how its traffic projections were developed. No wonder, because they seem to be practicing highway voodoo.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Systemic Failure, responding to an absurd case of police overreach in San Francisco, points out that  places where it’s safe for children to be on bikes don’t require them to wear helmets. And Delaware Bikes outlines data from Active Living Research that shows the many health benefits of biking and walking for transportation.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Kids in Low-Income Neighborhoods Most at Risk of Traffic Injuries (Gotham Gazette)
  • After Neighbors Worry About Parking and Cars, Medgar Evers Scraps Plaza Plan (Bklyn Brief)
  • 2nd Avenue Sagas and Gothamist Make the Case Against the QueensWay, for Rail Reactivation
  • MTA Data Shows Most Brooklyn Subway Lines Could Handle More Riders (YIMBY)
  • Most of SL Green’s Grand Central Upgrades Will Focus on Lexington Ave Subways (CapNY, Crain’s)
  • Adam Forman: City Hall Must Increase Its Contribution to MTA (Gotham Gazette)
  • More Coverage of City’s Countdown to 25 MPH from WCBS, WNYC, NY1, Advance
  • Staten Island CB 1 Asks City for Sidewalks, Traffic Lights, Greenway Study for NY Wheel (DNA)
  • M86 SBS Would Rely Mostly on Off-Board Fare Collection, Maybe Signal Priority (DNA)
  • Painting a Citi Bike Purple Is a Terrible Way to Hide The Fact That It’s Stolen (DNA)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA