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MAS Urbanists Tour New City Streetscapes with DOT

bike lanes street left hand side

It is forecast that by 2030, there will be one million additional people living in the City of New York. However, our transit systems – our roads, our subways, our buses – are already at or near capacity. How will all these people get around? Will the city they inhabit have a people-friendly, walkable cityscape, or will they inhabit a warren of automobile corridors?

On June 16th, the MAS Urbanists participated in a walking tour of some of the areas of Manhattan in which the Department of Transportation (DOT) is testing how street capacity can be increased. Led by Ed Janoff, DOT Senior Project Manager for Streetscapes and Public Spaces, urbanists observed how the agency, with a small budget, cooperation from other city departments, and a very limited design vocabulary, is creating new public spaces. While these spaces will have more permanent design elements added over the next three years, part of the beauty of these new spaces derives from the ingenuity with which they were arranged.

urban hour walking tour

The walking tour started in the Meatpacking District on 14th Street and 9th Avenue, near the new divided bicycle lanes. Five traffic lanes flanked by two parking lanes were changed, from left to right, into a bicycle lane, a ‘buffer’ lane, a parking lane, three automobile lanes, and a parking lane. The total number of cars using the avenue has not been reduced, but the safer bike lane now comprises about 6% of the traffic. This is a sufficient quantity to have a calming effect, which may be why accidents have been reduced by 30%. 50 people using bicycles require less space than 50 people driving; thus the overall capacity of the road has been increased. (DOT is also studying dual use bike/bus rapid transit lanes. If this can be safely managed, it would further increase street capacity.)

Of course, the other impediment to cycle commuting is the lack of bike parking. Bike racks fall under the purview of DOT, and it remains to be seen if accommodation for bicycles can be increased in New York’s commercial districts. For now, there are a few examples of innovative street furniture: the bike racks designed by David Byrne, currently installed at Astor Place and a few other locations around town.

urban hour walking tour

Perhaps it should not be surprising that DOT has jurisdiction over street furniture for another major transportation mode – pedestrians. 14th and 9th is also home to one of the new pedestrian plazas, reminiscent of European urban plazas. Despite the transforming nature of these plazas, also located at Madison Square, Herald Square, and Times Square, they were constructed using limited resources and tools. Bridge painters were used to apply adhesive to the asphalt, and gravel was spread to provide a sense of separation from the adjacent traffic lanes. It’s easy to repair or to remove if needed. The traffic calming devices that block traffic are either filled with soil for use as planters, or stone cladding removed from the Queensboro Bridge. Finally DOT obtained chairs and tables for use as ‘parking’ for pedestrians through public/private partnerships, notably with BIDs.

Each of the plazas is being studied to see its effect on automobile traffic. Because Broadway cuts through the grid at an angle and forms three-street intersections, the traffic signal choreography is more complex and less efficient. So, through a phenomenon known as Braess’s Paradox, it is possible that the removal of automobiles from stretches of Broadway will lead to improved traffic flow in a roughly 12-block radius around the closures. DOT traffic monitors are studying this whole zone to determine if this occurs in practice.

Ultimately, it will be the use of these public spaces that will determine whether these experiments are judged to be successful. Will they be vibrant, populated meeting places, or will they deteriorate into underused, foreboding negative spaces? Will they encourage commuting by bicycle and continue to calm automobile traffic? And will they help to move more people, more pleasantly, through the city more effectively in the not-too-distant future?