Sunday, October 25th, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.