The NYALSA President's Dinner was held in NYC this past week and one of the guests of honor was DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. In the last three years Sadik-Khan has reached cult status here in the city; she is a potent combination of geeky transportation guru, guerilla designer, and hipster chic. She gives talks with Mitchell Joachim and David Byrne, Transportation Alternatives chief Paul Steely "Don't call me Steely" White is a big fan, and she initiated the popular Summer Streets program, all while holding court in Albany and ruthlessly expanding bike lines and pedestrian amenities throughout the city. She's got a cadre of young upstarts in her department that think bikers and pedestrians have priority over the maniacal cab drivers and trash trucks, and sometimes she even takes their side.
But, I'm not here to list her accomplishments. I am here to critique the tangible results.
Being as we've had a few weeks of still-pleasant fall weather in the city I took the chance to spend some time on Broadway, the site of the city's "Green Light for Midtown" project. The DOT's website describes the project as "a pilot program... to reduce traffic congestion throughout Midtown Manhattan through targeted improvements on Broadway, focused on Times and Herald Squares". They go on to explain that because Broadway is the anomaly in the famous Manhattan grid, it creates traffic snarls at every major intersection. The press release cleverly frames the entire project as a congestion-easing measure, promising to reduce traffic signal wait time.
However, a major thrust of the project is the wholesale repurposing of the most contentious areas of Broadway for pedestrian space and bike lanes. They do this with a simple palette of materials that had been tested in less controversial locations in Manhattan in 2007 and 2008 and which you can find in their Street Design Manual (a straightforward and pragmatic toolbox that every urban designer should have on their server). These include highway paint, bollards, planters, tables and chairs, some concrete, and an epoxy pavement coating. That is it.
The green bike lanes have been implemented throughout the boroughs in areas where there is high bicycle traffic to increase biker visibility. The pavement markings, bollards, and epoxy coatings had previously been used to create protected pedestrian destinations right in the road bed at other locations on Broadway, notably Madison Square Park in front of the Flat Iron Building. In addition, a bike lane had been striped along Broadway all the way from Central Park to Union Square, connecting the whole of Midtown.
The sophistication in this simple strategy is staggering- the materials for converting the road bed from automobile use to pedestrian use were limited to that which the DOT's own contractors knew how to quickly install which meant there was infinitely less beaurocratic red tape for getting approvals and hiring design consultants. The materials are not fine, but the recognition that these particular spaces were so crowded with pedestrians and bikers clamoring for their own share of the road was key- the landscape didn't need to attract people, only accomodate them. To install the new plaza spaces at Madison Square Park (Broadway and 23rd) the local community board was given a week's notice. The change happened overnight. That was 2008.
In 2009, planting islands were installed along the east side of broadway and it was striped for parking to create a protected bike lane. Then the pilot project was begun. And everyone wrote about it hysterically- it was a polarizing moment, and everyone claimed credit (including the pedantic sychophants over at Project for Public Spaces). Well, now it's six months later, and given that two seasons have passed and the hysteria/euphoria has subsided a bit, I thought now would be a good time to take a walk up Broadway and survey the scene.
To walk anywhere in Midtown near Times Square is a horrible, horrible thing. It was my hope that now it would be a little less worse.