January 29, 2007

Is New York City Losing Its Pedestrian Edge?

Is New York City - the only city in America where more than half its residents don't take private cars to work - losing its pedestrian edge?

Author Robert Sullivan thinks so. In a thoughtful N.Y. Times op-ed piece, he worries that "as far as pedestrian issues go, New York is acting more like the rest of America, and the rest of America is acting more like the once-inspiring New York."

Why? "We have lost our golden pedestrian touch in New York mostly because we still think about traffic as though it were 1950, and we needed Robert Moses to plow a few giant freeways through town to get the cars moving again. But the fact is that more roads equal more traffic." (something streetscape-improvement advocates have argued repeatedly).

After citing the many positive steps other cities are taking to make more pedestrian-friendly environments, he notes that "the city is the new suburb. Families have returned to the New York that was abandoned years ago for lawns and better public schools. They’ve brought with them a love of cars."

Uh oh.

How to fix things? "The simple and elegant cure for the loss of New York’s inner pedestrian is to open up car-clogged streets and public spaces." Worry less about taking over yet more public and private space for funneling and parking motor vehicles, and more about quality of life.
"With a million more New Yorkers scheduled to arrive by 2030, true sustainability requires the city — or at least its residents — to make a bold move. Some neighborhoods are already working on it. The Ninth Avenue Renaissance Project, sponsored by a coalition of residents and businesses, has held community workshops on converting Ninth Avenue from Lincoln Tunnel access ramp to boulevard.

"The now chic Meatpacking District plans to bring back a space that, since the area was a Native American village, has been a natural gathering place for people without combustion engines: wider sidewalks, public seating and a piazza in the restaurant-surrounded open field of paving stones could be more like Campo dei Fiori in Rome and less a spot for crazed U-turns. . . .

" 'Roads no longer merely lead to places; they are places,' wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape historian. We've already lost a lot of New York to traffic. If New Yorkers don’t get out of their cars soon, the city’s future residents won't have a reason to."

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