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Just How Walkable (or Rollable) is New York City? 2010 Jane Jacobs Forum Recap

Jane Jacobs Forum 2010: The Walkable (& Rollable City) - Photo by Giles Ashford

Walking and rolling took center stage at this year’s MAS Jane Jacobs Forum, as we considered these forms of transportation that are so often overlooked.

MAS president Vin Cipolla opened the evening by pointing out that more people walk to work in New York City (9.2%) than in any other major U.S. city. But, Nicholas Turner, a managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation, noted that walking is not even classified as transportation at the federal level—walking is considered merely an “enhancement.” This is especially surprising since, as tour leader and panelist Francis Morrone commented, “It’s only very recently in human history that we’ve been transported by other means than walking.”

Moderator John Hockenberry posed a trenchant question, “Is New York a welcoming city for walkers?” The work that the Department of Transportation is doing to make New York City more pedestrian and bicycle friendly is the concern of many. But, as panelist Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE pointed out, while the DOT’s changes in street design have resulted in attractive amenities and lower accident rates in congested parts of the city, other parts of the city, like Sunset Park, Brooklyn, still pose dangers to pedestrians.

Yeampierre also cited a lack of community participation in planning recreational space in New York City, where new bike paths trump the passive park space many residents prefer. Panelist Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives mentioned early in the evening that although streets and sidewalks make up 80% of New York’s public space “pedestrians and cyclists are fighting over the scraps.” That fight was apparent in the discussion of the loutish behavior of some bicyclists.

Nancy Gruskin, whose husband was killed last year by a bicyclist going the wrong way, spoke from the audience to the importance of bicycling for a sustainable city as well as enforcement of regulations.

Also in the audience were men and women in wheelchairs and others who were blind. They spoke about their difficulties in navigating New York’s streets and sidewalks, where an everyday errand is complicated by a lack of curb cuts (How do I get across this street?) or lack of tactile clues (Am I on the sidewalk or in the street?). Does it take more courage to speed through traffic or to head outside, with a cane or in a wheelchair, knowing that you will face problems getting where you need to go?

Hockenberry has rolled over the Brooklyn Bridge, under the FDR Drive, along the Hudson River, on Coney Island’s boardwalk. Still, Hockenberry’s question remains, “Is New York a welcoming city for walkers?” His retort was, “If you’re hanging around Queens Boulevard, the answer is no; if you’re on Fifth Ave. in the 80s, the answer is yes.”

But, New York can be welcoming for walkers and rollers alike if the voices of residents and transportation advocates are heard by those charged with the design and use of New York’s streetscapes.

The annual Jane Jacobs Forum is made possible through the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Photos by Giles Ashford.