Sunday, February 14, 2010

All Hail Sadik Khan- Midwinter Ululating

Well, it's the middle of February and it seems that spring will never come. So, in the interest of pitiful and weak-minded self-preservation I thought it would be good to prime the Springtime pump and head out to the streets to report on bicycled-themed developments which promise big changes in our city landscape, should the god-forsaken winter ever break and fairer days finally start to peak through.

Firstly, last week while waiting in line for a "slice of plain" I regrettably found myself paging through the NY Post. While it's true that the Post is the rebellious, sleazy kid-brother to the Times' stately and dignified journalistic voice it can be a good time-killer. No one covers a melodramatic non-story as hysterically as they do. Occasionally they even impart knowledge of real significance.

Case in point is this announcement- tucked neatly next to a photo of a buxom Kardashian Sister- that city parking meters are being turned into bicycle racks. While you may or may not like the aesthetic of this particular rack, the ingenuity with which they are being installed- use the existing footing and surrounding paving of the old parking meters as the structure to attach on of these racks- is surely worthy of a slow clap.

The fact is, the lack of bike parking in the city sucks- this is not Portland- and a simple rack can go a long way. 'Til now, I have been critical of the new NYCity Rack by Beetlelab. However, if enough can be in place by the spring time that we no longer have to lock haphazardly to scaffolding and street signs- easy prey for bike thieves- then I am all in.
[new NYCity Racks along Broadway]

[traditional street sign/bike rack]

[olde skool theft-encouraging scaffolding/bike rack]

In other news, last week I was paging through the day's AM New York while riding the elevated 7 Train when I stumbled across a tiny news release. Mayor Bloomberg has announced that Broadway will be permanently made into pedestrian space at Times Square. A capital project will be created to refine and further implement the changes spearheaded by transit demigod, hipster-chic celebrity and NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn.
[new condom wrapper!  oh yeah, and Times Square is being redone]

This project holds particular interest for Don Roman and myself here at FASLANYC. We wrote back in November about the possibilities for changing Broadway and the lessons to be learned from the first steps taken by the NYC DOT and the fact that they were looking for feedback on those steps. In fact, they finished up that report and have published it here. Some of the findings are eye-opening, including across the board decreases in traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries despite increased traffic volumes. Travel times varied from a 15% decrease on 6th Avenue to a 2% increase on 7th Avenue.

As mentioned in our previous post, the efficacy of the automobile transit system is critical to the viability of the project. In the report, which I recommend you page through if you're a New Yorker or planner/urban designer, one of the most telling sentences comes on page 1:

"Given the improvements in mobility, safety and satisfaction noted above and in the following report, DOT recommends that the new network changes be made permanent and built upon for the continued vibrancy of West Midtown. This includes enhancing the Broadway corridor by upgrading the temporary materials used in the Green Light for Midtown project through future capital projects."

Alas! Jailbreak for landscape architects!

The truth is, this project has the potential to be one of the most significant landscape initiatives in the city, at least since the west side parks on the Hudson were begun in the 1980's. The symbolic significance of Broadway- that old indigenous trail, the anomaly in the famous city grid, running the length of the island, creating famous plazas at every avenue intersection (Columbus Circle at 8th Avenue, Times Square at 7th, Herald Square at 6th, Madison Square Park at 5th, Union Square at 4th)- cannot be overstated. In fact, it's worth of a clever NY Post-esque title: JSK power slams the Power Broker!

In addition, the critical mass of pedestrians afforded by subway stops all along the route, the well-known parks and plazas, the uniqueness of its geography compared to the other streets, its name recognition, and the city wide push for "sustainable streets" and environmentally conscious initiatives all provide potent raw material to draw from. The pedestrian mall experiments of the 60's and 70's provide perfect precedent studies and test cases, and the sophisticated and forward-thinking way the DOT has gone about this- combining community input and temporary projects with dizzyingly fast decisions and the heavy-handed backing of the billionaire mayor- has been incredibly effective thus far and serve as inspiration.

For us here at FASLANYC, many questions remain. What are the most appropriate precedents? How does this fit into larger patterns in the city? Will a high-profile firm be brought in to reconceptualize the former Longacre Square (the name of Times Square prior to the New York Times moving there and convincing Mayor George McClellan to rename it) or a design competition held? How will the DOT's designers fit in (yes, they have recently taken advantage of the downturn to hire young landscape architects cast off from the Field Operations' and MVVAs of the city)? Most importantly, what are the implications of a redesigned and repurposed Times Square for the other major avenue intersections up and down Broadway?

It's an exciting development, one I can only hope doesn't get mired in the muck of professional ambition and clamoring for credit. At any rate, it is heartening to read news of bike racks and new pedestrian squares in the dead of February, that meanest of northern months. Let the ululating begin...


  1. I disagree with what you say about "efficacy of the automobile transit system [being] critical to the viability of the project." Driving through midtown is (still) a fool's errand, and the subway is faster and cheaper. Rather, making the automobile environment less hospitable in midtown will encourage more people to take the subway, rail or bus, thereby contributing to those attractive pedestrian densities.

  2. I should have been clearer in stating that it was critical to the political viability of the project. That is, it is likely not politically possible to talk about making traffic worse- make travel times longer- in any capacity for any reason. I agree that pedestrian space is needed but it does become more complicated when you consider a) the original pedestrian mall model of the 60’s and 70’s, many of which failed and b) the legacy of Broadway, which has always been a great connecting road, be it over the wild island of the 1600’s or as the lone main anomaly in the city grid. It seems that legacy is critical and a case could be made that Broadway should always be about moving people (in whatever fashion- bike, bus, foot, car, subway).

    If you read my older post, I think you will see that we are simpatico in that just being in midtown is something of a fool’s errand. Well put though, Jonathan.