What are we talking about today?

I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

18 October 2016

Bringing Life to the Streets

A couple months back, I read Janette Sadik-Khan's Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, which describes her tenure as NYC's transportation commissioner and the incredible things that happened for transit, bicycling, and walking in New York with her at the helm. This isn't a review so much as a fun place to put all my thoughts. And my first thought is: if you're any kind of an active transportation user or advocate, you can't go wrong reading this. And possibly sending a few copies to your city council.

Herald Square.
This used to be a through street at
at five-way intersection. Opening
it up for people not only offers a
place to stop and enjoy the city,
but it also made all the remaining
red light cycles shorter.
First things first: I'm so glad my initial visit to NYC was after these changes were implemented. As a bicycle advocate and an avid reader of Streetsblog, I knew these things were happening and read about the fights, but by the time I got to see them in person they were on the ground and a foregone conclusion. Part of me wishes I'd seen the "before" in person so I'd have mental images to compare it to, but... it's not like I've never experienced poorly designed streets before. Experiencing the "after" is pretty great.

Like this, for instance: the four squares connected by Broadway--Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square, & Union Square--I've been to all of them. This was one of my goals on my second visit to NYC this summer, although I didn't know at the time that the four squares were all ones that had been transformed (or, for that matter, that they're all connected by Broadway). Madison Square is near the Flatiron Building, Herald Square is where Macy's is, and Union Square is the nearest subway stop to Strand Book Store, so that's how I ended up seeing them all. (Draw what conclusions about me that you will from that collection of landmarks.)

In Herald Square, Sadik-Khan's work is immediately apparent to anyone who knows about the changes in NYC in the last decade. The changes in Madison and Union Squares that she described in the book were a pleasant "Huh, what do you know?" when I read about them. All four work beautifully as places for people to gather and enjoy the city.

No prizes for guessing what catches
my eye in this photo every time
I look at it. 
Ms. Sadik-Khan was in Austin last year giving a great talk about the before and after in NYC. (I got tickets early and got to the venue early on the night, and only heard later that the waitlist line stretched around the block. It's not often I get in on high-demand events. Incidentally, I also got my boss a ticket when I got my own, or else he would have been standing in line, too.) I, of course, got very distracted from the on-the-ground changes she showed us during the slideshow--I just wanted to look at the Broadway billboards in all the Times Square photos and not the street. Many of the same pics are in the book and it turns out I still have that problem. Which is part of the reason a teeny tiny bit of me wishes I'd seen it in person before--it's such a great pedestrian plaza now that I have a hard time imagining it any other way. And apparently, so do people who've lived there the whole time.

This is huge: "Reporters started to figure out the counterintuitive fact that bike lanes and plazas were the budgetary equivalent of change found between the sofa cushions compared with our road infrastructure investment." Everyone who works in or reports on transportation needs to get this. Providing active transportation amenities is so cheap compared to building a lane of traffic for primarily car use, with the added benefit that bikes and pedestrians don't damage the infrastructure just by using it. (Yes, your car is heavy and does some damage to the road every time you drive on it, which is why roads require near-constant repair.)

Another thing that resonated with me: "But if you're on foot, small smartphone maps aren't as user friendly for exploring and getting the lay of the land as an old-fashioned map." YES. The paper tourist map I picked up at the airport turned out to be much more useful than my phone about 95% of the time, even for finding transit. The same is turning out to be true in Cincinnati, by the way, except the paper tourist maps in Cincy don't bother listing transit lines. This quote is in the context of NYC posting maps in kiosks around the city for wayfinding. Bonus: the maps are oriented the way you're facing, so no mental compass required.

And finally, I still can't believe I didn't coordinate my NYC trip to coincide with Summer Streets. It's not like I didn't know that it happens, and just up the street from the hotel I stayed in, to boot. I missed it by one week.

Basically, reading Streetfight made me appreciate all the more all of the the things I saw and experienced as a matter of course on my trips to NYC. I'm already looking forward to what I'll see next time.

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