The Iris Weinshall Renaissance

weinshall.jpgDOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall’s speech was, for many long-time Livable Streets advocates, the single most remarkable aspect of yesterday’s Manhattan Transportation Policy Conference. As Jon Orcutt at TSTC noted, Weinshall’s speech "laid out an array of measures to improve New York’s pedestrian and bicycling environments, soften the quality of life impacts of heavy traffic, and begin to reclaim the sheer urban acreage given over to automobiles." Added up, these measures appear to represent the beginnings of an altogether new set of transportation, land use, and public space policies for New York City and, as Orcutt writes, "a significant departure" from past priorities.

To my ear, the most significant departure from previous policy was Weinshall’s saying, simply, that New York City needs "to reduce auto use." It may not sound like firebrand rhetoric, yet this language represents a radical shift in thinking for New York City.

For decades, New York City’s business and political decision-makers have operated under the assumption that reducing automobile traffic would hurt New York City’s economy. Only a couple of months ago Mayor Bloomberg, speaking off-the-cuff, joked, "We like traffic, it means economic activity, it means people coming here." Yet, Weinshall concluded her speech yesterday by saying the Mayor’s new Long-Term Planning Office is "carefully considering a wide range of strategies to shift travel away from the automobile and onto transit." As far as I know Weinshall has never said anything like that in public and neither has the mayor. This is not insignificant.

Now that those words have been said, DOT can start to work to make it happen. Towards that end, Weinshall said the agency has begun or completed the following initiatives:

Bus Rapid Transit: "Very shortly, we will be announcing five corridors to pilot bus rapid transit and are developing more detailed plans for these rapid routes." Weinshall said that she expects two of the corridors to be up and running by fall of 2007. New York City’s BRT system will not be given physically-separated right-of-way like Paris’s successful Mobilien but it will include "colored bus lanes, improved bus lane enforcement, signal prioritization, wider bus stop spacing, next bus information, and quicker fare collection." Making New York City’s buses work better is a major priority and it’s great to see the City taking responsibility for this rather than leaving it to the MTA.

Bicycling: The 200 miles of new bicycle lanes and route markings announced last month. We’ve written about that plenty.

Parking: The City has the opportunity to vastly improve transportation and public space through parking policy. Weinshall talked about DOT’s efforts to implement "creative curb space pricing" to encourage "truckers to rotate out of legal parking spots quickly, giving others an opportunity to load and unload." In Lower Manhattan DOT is undertaking a comprehensive curb space study including "a block-by-block survey of curb activity that will tell us where people are parking, where they’re coming from, and how long they’re parking for." Let’s hope a crackdown on government employee parking comes out of that. Sounds like the Park(ing) Squats are working.

Safe Routes to Schools: Weinshall announced that DOT has finally, after years of delay, broken through the bureaucracy and begun implementing recommendations for improving pedestrian safety around city schools. At the end of November, DOT expects "to have plans for over 750 new neckdowns and 70 pedestrian medians." And they have already "installed 69 speed reducers around other schools over the past four months."

Pedestrian and Public Space Improvements: In addition to announcing the closing of Times Square’s "bow-tie," Weinshall touted the new Willoughby Street pedestrian plaza in Downtown Brooklyn and said that next month, DOT "will create a similar space in front of Stuyvesant Town on 1st Avenue, Astor Place and Louise Nevelson Plaza" (where is that?!). But check out this language: "We at DOT are thinking of public spaces as neither parks or streets. In the years to come, DOT, working with communities and other city agencies, plans to reallocate street space in neighborhoods in all five boroughs to create many more of these public plazas. We hope to develop a framework to create neighborhood plazas in every community in the City." Again: This is significant. This is Jan Gehl language. This is the kind of thinking that has brought great public spaces, better mobility and an increasing quality of life to cities like London, Paris and Copenhagen.

With the New York City Streets Renaissance becoming the Iris Weinshall Renaissance and the Department of Transportation becoming something more akin to a Department of Streets and Public Spaces, Livable Streets advocates appear to have a whole new set of allies within city government. This is great news, yet it also means that a new set of challenges are emerging. Three that come to mind most immediately:

Devil’s in the Design (and enforcement) Details: One man’s Bus Rapid Transit lane or Bike Route may be another man’s parking lot. Bike lanes, BRT and pedestrian plazas are great, but to work they have to be designed and managed properly. It’s going to take a lot of communication and experimentation to learn what works and what does not in New York City. This is going to be a challenge.

The Multi-Agency Bureacracy: To make these changes work, governmental agencies are going to have to work together closely. It’s not just about DOT. It’s also about the MTA, Design & Construction, Parks, Education, the Mayor’s various offices, Community Boards, and probably quite a few others, not to mention the private contractors who pour most of the concrete. If, for example, the guys at DDC don’t know how to design and mass produce traffic calming measures for schools, Safe Routes for Schools isn’t going to work. The Mayor needs to convene a multi-agency meeting and make sure that everyone understands that Livable Streets are a new priority and that everyone is working together.

About Those Community Boards: New York City’s antiquated Community Board structure may very well be the 800 lb gorilla in the room. Community Boards often seem to exist in this world to say, "No" and make sure nothing ever changes in neighborhoods. Community Boards often consist of lifetime appointees who are still fighting the local battles of twenty years ago. Unfortunately, it may be the case that to get its new Livable Streets agenda done DOT is going to have to figure out how to work with — or work around — the City’s Community Board system, which is badly in need of reform.


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