Summer streets

One thing that I didn’t fully grasp before we moved to New York was how accurate this viral-y picture truly is:

Living in Manhattan is a constant bombardment of your senses in many ways – the stench, the temperature, the noise. But one adjustment that isn’t as talked-about is the new confines of your life to a 15-foot or so (if you’re lucky) space between buildings on one side and a busy street on the other. Every time you venture off the sidewalk, all bets are off. Taxi cabs come zooming at 40 or 50 miles an hour through intersections, trying to make a light. Freight trucks block the crossing lane, forcing everyone to weave between cars to get across. Cars trying to turn creep up within a foot or two of pedestrians to get by before they zoom away, close enough for you to feel the gust of air that trails them. What surprises me is not that 48 pedestrians have died in NYC so far this year, which is a big drop in recent years, but rather that the number isn’t far higher than that. (I’ve personally pounded the shit out of a few car hoods that were a little too aggressive.)

I work in Midtown, which admittedly means I happen to encounter some of the worst of New York City every day. Yet I think it’s fair to say that this is not a city friendly to pedestrians, or, really, continued growth. Congestion pricing, a completely obvious if partial remedy, is opposed by the same Mayor who also agrees that the subway system is a complete shambles. The subway system (which is nonsensically controlled by New York State, and not the city) is literally controlled with 1930s-era technology and seems unlikely to get an upgrade anytime very soon. New Yorkers are famously irate about the MTA so I won’t get into that, except to say that it doesn’t say much positive about the polity.

For the past few weekends, a bunch of big corporations paid the city tons of money to shut down Park Avenue and turn it into a big pedestrian-friendly commons zone on Saturday mornings. It was called Summer Streets, and it was great. With one of Manhattan’s biggest traffic arteries shut down, the neighborhood was calmer and quieter. People were out walking, running, playing, and generally enjoying space, that most valuable of urban commodities. Instead of giving it to cars, Summer Streets offered it to humans. Utility was gained!

I’m not particularly anti-car. In almost all places in America, owning a car isn’t really optional and that isn’t changing – indeed, it seems that not owning one is increasingly a status signal for rich people in NYC or SF. Yet here, in this city and those like it, building the urban landscape around personal vehicles results in crappy experiences for both residents and visitors.

I’m not an urban planner, but in my ignorance, it seems like heavily taxing personal vehicles and freight coming into Manhattan would probably result in a strong revenue stream that could go to investing in transit, which is chronically underfunded (and also probably mis-managed), while reducing the amount of traffic into the city. Economic logic would indicate that this would encourage more efficient use of those vehicles to boot. This would be a pretty progressive tax – not a lot of working or middle-class people commute into Manhattan by personal car. Ideally, it would be cool to simply shut down many of the city’s cross/side streets entirely, and rely primarily on a few major arteries for vehicle traffic.

Yeah, there are probably reasons why this “just wouldn’t work,” but I suspect it’s really just a political choice more than anything else. Self-driving cars or other magical tech are not a panacea for the way we fundamentally design our cities. But perhaps that’s the problem – for as much as we talk about “urban design,” most big American cities are more the products of inertia than deliberate planning. We don’t demolish and build anew much anymore, at least not in big metros. And until that happens, I doubt much will change.


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