Sunday, October 25th, 2009

New York: Leadership in Transportation Design

I previously wrote about how the Parable of the Talents can be viewed as purely descriptive, not normative. It does seem that the people who are already at the top of the heap are able to keep getting more good stuff. While in a dynamic society fortunes rise and fall, it can be surprisingly difficult to displace an entrenched incumbent absent a major market disruption. Perhaps that helps explain why New York City isn’t just on top, it continues to do things that distinguish it.

Given that New York is more or less fully developed, I wouldn’t have expected it to be a hotbed of transportation innovation. But surprisingly, New York has displayed a lot of leadership in the area of transportation design of late when it comes to its streets. I won’t claim it is better than anyone else in the world, but there are definitely good things happening there, so let’s take a look.

The High Line

The High Line was an old elevated rail line in Manhattan that was slated to be torn down. A group of people decided instead to lobby to have it turned into an elevated linear park. This became a very chic cause and as a result a lot of private money was raised to make it happen. Given the number of abandoned rail lines like this in our cities, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often. I don’t know if the High Line was the first of its kind, but it has certainly changed the public perception and the idea is now being copied in places like Chicago with its proposed Bloomingdale Trail (coming circa 2016).

The design of the High Line is also first rate. It was done in a contemporary style, preserving the rails and replanting native grasses to give the feel that you are still walking down an overgrown rail bed. Very nice. Here are a couple of pictures:

As you can see, the park features some great furniture designs as well.

Bike Racks

Various cities have done art bike rack projects, but few of them are as interesting the one New York did with David Byrne. Here is one of his marvelous designs:

You can see more of the designs on David Byrne’s web site.

But in keeping with my adage that “the mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones”, New York went further and held a design competition for a bespoke bike rack that would be installed as the new city standard for wide deployment. Here’s a look at the winner:

I’m not sure what I think of this, honestly. And it looks like it would be pretty easy to rip out of the concrete. But it is a unique design that, once widely deployed, could easily become yet another iconic image of the city, much the way the phone booths, black cabs, red double-decker buses, and bobby’s caps are for London.

I have strongly advocated that cities look to do something like this. When I’ve touted these types of designs of various people, I’m invariably told that it would cost too much money. But cities are often thinking of one-off type designs they do for “special” districts without considering that unit cost plummets with volume. Most larger cities should have minimum scale necessary to get an attractive price. And you can make a target fabrication price part of the design, and designers could partner with fabricators to submit joint bids.

Just to give one example, Columbus, Indiana recently had some custom bike racks created in the shape of their “C” logo at a fabrication cost of $200 each – less than the cost of a regular U-rack.  There is simply no excuse.

Bicycle Tracks and Lanes

You wouldn’t think of New York as a place you’d want to ride a bike that much, but the city is making a big effort to be more bicycle friendly. This includes bike lanes, of course. But those are becoming ubiquitous in America. New York has gone beyond that and has actually installed so called “bicycle tracks”, or bike lanes that employ some type of full separation or buffering of bicycles from traffic. Here’s one on 9th Avenue (via BeyondDC):

These are starting to pop up around the country, but New York is a leader here.

Bicycle Access to Buildings Law

New York also passed a law that requires commercial building owners with at least one freight elevator to allow people to transport bicycles in them. I never thought about buildings not wanting bikes in them, but I guess some do. The law takes effect in December of this year.

LED Streetlights

Again, New York launched an international design competition for a new street lamp design. There were over 200 entries submitted from 23 countries. The winner was from architects Thomas Phifer and Partners and lighting consultant Office for Visual Interaction, Inc. These LED lamps will be green friendly – LED’s consume less energy than traditional bulbs – and also have a modular design to allow various components to be upgraded over time as new technology comes on line.

Oh, and the design is modern, sleek, and attractive as well:

I love the little wire looking things on the edges.  They are like a throwback to the gas lamp era when you could use those to raise and lower old school lights. If you are going to incorporate historical references, that’s the way to do it.

It is still early days. The lights have to be tested and such, but the city is potentially looking to install these as the new standard. Looks like another winner.

Traffic Closures on Broadway

New York has also launched an experiment with closing sections of Broadway to traffic and turning the space over to people. The first sections are in Times Square and Herald Square. This one has been controversial. Some businesses don’t like it. Also, the lawn chairs and such I’ve seen photographed are quite tacky:

[ A commenter tells me these have been replaced with real tables and chairs – obviously I haven’t been back to NYC since this happened. ]

Still, it’s probably worthwhile as an experiment at least. The street was not ripped out and cars can always be let back later if it is judged not to be working.

However, New York’s DOT has a broader public plaza program designed to convert underutilized streets into public plazas. Looks like a winner.

Street Design Manual

A lot of this is put together in the new New York Street Design Manual. New York is one of the first cities to issue a comprehensive design guide updated for the 21st century.

I haven’t had the leisure to read the entire thing yet, but the cover is a supreme work of graphic design in itself:

The green is an obvious choice, but I love how it is used sparingly. The design is crisp and modern, but what I really love is the use of green/yellow/tan shades and shapes that are equally as rural as urban. This could easily be the cover of a Pioneer seed brochure or John Deere spare parts catalog. Oh, and note the bike rack design on there.

Janette Sadik-Khan

A lot of the credit for this goes to Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City Transportation Commissioner. She has been one of those rare figures that combines the ability to get things done with the wisdom to know what it is we should do. Or, as a lengthy profile in New York Magazine put it, she’s equal parts Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

She’s not been without controversy, and let’s face it, anytime you try this many new things you are going to get a few things wrong, but on the whole I think you’d have to say New York has made a major turn in the right direction. It’s not just that any one of these projects is so great or innovative, it is the sheer quantity of quality in a place as challenging as New York City. Again, one would have thought that New York City was largely “done” from a street infrastructure perspective. It turns out that’s not the case – and in a very good way.


I have tried to give a feel for the breadth and depth of what New York is bringing to bear to make its streets better places. But I won’t claim this is a comprehensive survey. There is just too much going on. I didn’t even touch on transit, for example.

If you want to know more, the source of record for keeping up with these developments in New York is the inestimable Streetsblog. Some might find its NYC focus not of interest, and they do post a few times a day so possibly too high volume for others, but I consider it one the top sites in my reader.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: New York

15 Responses to “New York: Leadership in Transportation Design”

  1. Steven says:

    RE: Times Square Chairs – The beach chairs were temporary until the permanent ones were delivered in August. They now have a more traditional “city park” chair look, although painted red for Times Square instead of green.

  2. Thanks for the info – appreciate the update.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Times Square is no ordinary space; it’s a major tourist attraction. If you look at how New York treats its ordinary spaces – say, any neighborhood north of 59th or not in Manhattan – it doesn’t install bike lanes or do any traffic calming. The Chelsea bike lanes are right in the middle of one of the most desirable areas of the city, and aren’t representative of how the city treats most neighborhoods. In the sections of the city with asthma rates several times the citywide average, like East Harlem or Long Island City, Sadik-Khan hasn’t even tried proposing traffic-reducing improvements.

    Also: I question the ability of anyone in city leadership to get things done. The city’s new subway projects, Second Avenue Subway and the 7 Extension, cost $1.7 and $1.3 billion per route-km, respectively. The most expensive subway line outside New York cost $640 million/km, and most lines in high-income, high-cost cities come in at about $300-500 million/km. Second Avenue Subway is an MTA project, but the 7 extension is funded by the city, and you’d expect that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan would try to do cost control.

  4. ardecila says:

    Manhattan may very well BE the world’s most difficult place to build a new subway. Utility lines are an underground rat’s nest built in various stages over the last 150 years. Hyper-dense buildings create tons of traffic to work around, and the extreme concentrated wealth of the East Side gives the tenants of those buildings an incredible amount of political power to delay and hinder subway construction. This is in addition to the extreme amount of legal protection offered to those affected by transportation projects, in our lawsuit culture.

    Other cities, say in Asia or South America, have centrally-planned utilities and a far lower respect for individual quality of life, both as a cultural trait and a governmental policy. European cities also tend to be more communitarian.

    Honestly, I don’t know why MTA tried to build the launch box in the Upper East Side. Doing it in Harlem on a side-street or vacant lot would have been far easier and faster.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not comparing Manhattan to Bogota here. I’m comparing it to San Francisco and Tokyo, two wealthy, expensive cities with sclerotic business cultures and a maze of infrastructure under the streets. There’s no communitarianism there, nor in the big cities of Europe, where workers routinely go on strike when the government does things they don’t like.

    Tokyo’s infrastructure is so complex that its two most recent subway lines have had to be built deep underground, reaching 30 meters below ground at some points. This caused the projects to incur massive cost overruns, coming in at $250 million/km for the earlier line and $400 million for the more recent one. The $400 million/km price tag was so large that Tokyo Metro swore off building new subway lines for the foreseeable future.

    Manhattan doesn’t have a big NIMBYism problem. The project is popular, even if the construction isn’t, and there have been no lawsuits, or NIMBY protests, or political attempts to delay anything. On the contrary, one of the complaints is that the project is proceeding too slowly. The amount of money the MTA is spending on mitigation is peanuts, on the order of $500,000 for each of 4 buildings it needs to buttress or demolish. This is not why it costs 4 times as much to build SAS as to build new subway lines in Tokyo. Stupid ideas like building a launch box at 96th and 2nd are.

  6. Transit in NYC is a whole other post. The problem I think isn’t per se a New York one but an American one. We’ve created a system here with the most ridiculous cost profile in the world.

    The Second Ave. subway has bedeviled the city for decades.

    A lot of the problem is that we simply lack the will. A lot of the original NYC subway construction was cut and cover, despite probably worse street congestion than what exists today. But would anyone dare even imagine something like that today?

  7. WoofWoof says:

    Comparing what NYC has done in the last 8 years to Chicago’s much-vaunted Bike 2015 program is just kind of sad for this Chicagoan. Chicago had the perfect opportunity to do something interesting with bike racks when the parking meters were removed, and they simply blew the chance. Small, cheap regulatory changes, like NYC’s access to buildings law or DC’s required bike racks in parking garages law, could make a huge difference here. There are, AFAIK, no planned bike tracks; even green-colored bike lanes would make them much safer.

    This goes along with your recent series on the CTA: Chicago as a city frankly just lacks vision these days. Daley can gear up for big splashy expenditures like Millenium Park or the Olympics bid, but the more mundane things are generally uninspired.

  8. Lynn Stevens says:

    What’s that quote? “Details are all that matters….” or “The smallest details matter most….” (paraphrasing here and I don’t know attribution).

    But with regard to the details, I think people strive not to be like everywhere else. That extends within a city too. If neighborhoods are stuck with bike racks or street lighting or (like now) bus shelters like everywhere else in the city, what’s their distinction? especially if/when they all have the same chain stores. Cost is not the only factor to consider.

  9. lapsangsouchong says:

    Regarding antecedents to the High Line (which is now on my list of things to visit), the “Promenade plantée” in the 12th arrondissement of Paris was also created from a disused, mostly overhead railway line. It opened at the end of the 1980s, and is–as a friend of mine pointed out while we walked down it one day–always full of people: his gauge, and mine, of a successful bit of urban improvement. And, vide Aaron’s article on, not all of those people are white.

    (Now–I wonder if anything could be done with the surviving bits of the old overhead railway line in my hometown, Liverpool? Not even sure if enough of it remains to turn into a park.)

  10. lapsangsouchong says:

    Oh–and Paris’s attempts to improve provision for bikes (and, indeed, _of_ bikes) have been remarkable in the last few years. With the caveat that ‘Paris’ proper is, like Manhattan, just the centre of a much larger conurbation, and the bike improvements are very ‘centre-centric’, so to speak. Still, plenty of ideas there.

  11. anon says:

    When the High Line was abandoned it turned into real nature. Now it has been transformed into a fake nature. Real nature costs little. Fake nature means big money for architects and contractors. When will we stop degrading our natural world for a few dollars? Still the High Line is nice, but it is less now than when it was free.

  12. lapsangsouchong – thanks for the Paris info.

    Lynn, I agree. I think there are layers of identity: American, Chicagoan, Logan Squareite. We can have branding that is distinct to each level. Having some city wide common design elements I don’t think precludes unique neighborhood elements as well. For example, pair the standard bike rack with some limited number of art bike racks chosen to express neighborhood identity (sort of the way Byrne did with his).

  13. Nathanael says:

    The closure of Broadway around Times Square was actually designed to speed cars up.

    NYC traffic engineers are apparently smarter than those in most of the country, because they recognized that Broadway was mangling the otherwise orderly grid-system traffic. Closing it has actually *sped up the cars*.

    The pedestrian plaza was simply the logical thing to do with the closed road.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    The traffic speed was a post hoc justification. The same engineers, or perhaps a parallel team, produced a map of Manhattan streets showing where road closures would reduce congestion and where they would not. It turns out most of the streets that create more congestion than they relieve are various arterials and connectors in Lower Manhattan, which the city has no plans to pedestrianize.

    The real reason for the road closures, if you read the NY Mag article Aaron links to, is that Sadik-Khan wants to turn Broadway into a full-length linear park for.

  15. anon says:

    I don’t think not having cool bike racks is a sign that a city lacks vision, or that having them mean your city is really on the right track.

    Mayor Daley is sort of out of ideas though.

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