Category Archives: Livable Streets

Spring in New York

IMG_0144

Washington Square Park (from an NYU stairwell)

After disembarking from the cruise ship and all its excesses, I spent a couple of days in Brooklyn, four days in Vermont and New Hampshire, and then returned to the East Village in Manhattan for four days of the Walk 21 Conference at NYU.

You might be asking yourself, Spring?   Isn’t it Fall?  And yes you would be right.  But before you accuse me of getting my seasons horribly muddled, let me explain.   When I arrived, there was the sense that something new was afoot in New York City.  That the long, frigid, and hostile winter of relentless and dehumanising domination of motor traffic in our public spaces was slowly beginning to thaw.  The warming climate itself contributing to a reawakening of the appreciation of pubic space, and with it, a new possibility of self-propelled transport through the densest urban environment in the richest nation on Earth.

Instead of cursing the ‘snow’ all around, (as my inner cynic urges me to do), I decided to spend some time taking a closer look at the ‘green shoots’ where New York has decided that- oi vey- perhaps it went overboard in accommodating motor vehicles and that there may be social (and economic) value in remaking sterile asphalt dead zones into thriving social spaces.   There’s been a lot written about what New York City has been doing over the last couple years, so I won’t belabour the point, but it was really exciting to see firsthand.

Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

The Greening of Broadway

All along Broadway, the NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) has transformed former motor space using an inexpensive surface treatment of pebbledash and green paint to reclaim former car territory.  Beach chairs and tables are interspersed with new plants and trees.   Amazing how effective this is.  It shows how well trained we are most of the time, yielding space to cars just because it’s asphalt colored and has white and yellow lines on it.  Drivers also behave well in this new order- very rarely do their tires seem to stray onto these new areas, even when not protected by bollards.  Good drivers- you get a pat on the head, and a biscuit!

Street Life on Broadway

Street Life on Broadway

Times Square

It's about time!

It's about time!

The pedestrianisation of Times Square has perhaps received more coverage than any of the other improvements and somehow the city managed to make the new space just as gaudy as the flashing billboards surrounding the square.  Using the same design as used along Broadway- except the large dots are red instead of green, the effect is appropriately amusement park themed.

This same formula has been followed in a number of NYC neighbourhoods, generating quite an international buzz, which Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, as well as the campaign groups Transportation Alternatives and the Limewire mogul Mark Gorton funded Livable Streets Initiative can take appropriate degrees of credit.  Really though, it was the people of New York- the grassroots- who demanded action, and once it began, resoundingly voted with their feet.  According to the DOT, as soon as the chairs were installed, there was a rush of people who came to sit in them.  Citizens enjoying the new public space:  reading, chatting, drawing, or just watching the world go by.   Clearly New Yorkers have been deprived of adequate open space for too long and a huge latent demand has built up, beginning to be satisfied by the courageous and timely transport planning at the DOT.  Healthy Cities- 1  Carmageddon- 0

Ninth Avenue Bike Lanes

A bike lane my mom would ride

A bike lane my mom would ride

The 9th Ave. bike lanes are another example of where New York is re-allocating space from cars to green modes of transportation.  Though I didn’t get a chance to ride them, I did observe how they work and they have indeed transformed the look and feel of this formerly motor dominated street.   They’ve prioritised cycling, made crossings shorter for pedestrians, and softened the streetscape with new plantings.  I was skeptical of how left turning cars would interact with cyclists, but this seems to have been addressed through the use of dedicated signal phases, as has been done- after much lobbying- in San Francisco where Masonic crosses the Panhandle Path.

The High Line

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Getting above it all on the High Line...

Another reclamation of public space- in this case from abandoned railroad to pedestrian- has occurred in the Chelsea district, where an elevated rail line has begun a transformation into a walking path and native species oasis.  It really is great to see this project come to fruition.  When I worked for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in San Francisco at the beginning of the decade, I received a call one morning.  “Hi this is Ed Norton, and I’m interested in getting involved in the High Line project in New York.”   I said, ‘Oh hi.’  He said, “Yeah this is Edward Norton the actor…”  I said (totally ignorant of who he was), ‘ok well you can contact our east coast office at this number….”   Sorry Ed- I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet and didn’t know who you were.   Anyway, thanks for your support of the project.  No doubt the involvement of celebrities like you was instrumental in making the project happen.

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

And now for the feature presentation...the street!

As part of the project NYC Parks in cooperation with the Friends of the High Line have built what appears to be an amphitheater with wooden benches where people can sit and gaze at the traffic going by below.  Not exactly thrilling, unless you are an urban studies nerd like me, though it seems to be a popular place to sit and relax.

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Reclining chairs along the High Line lead to socializing

Further on, there are wooden benches that were built to roll sideways on the old rails until they realized that people could get their fingers pinched.  So they fixed the wheels in place.  Oh health and safety, don’t we love thy inconsistent application?   Do they know the thousands of metal boxes rolling around the city can result in worse things than pinched fingers?  Perhaps they could apply the same treatment to them as well.  Denver boots all around!

Industrial heritage.....green future

Industrial heritage.....green future

The plan is to extend the conversion of the High Line, creating a mile and a half traffic free walking artery above the noise, danger and fumes of the street.   A glimpse of what the streets below could become one day…

On the Level Blog approves....

On the Level Blog approves....

I love NY!

I love NY!

Eastside Voice Issue One Out on the Streets!

Squarepeg Developers would like to clearcut our hedgerow

Sometimes blogging just isn’t enough- especially when a local development threatens something as precious as the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, so a few of us from the neighbourhood got together and published a one sheet newsletter with important issues affecting east Bristol. You can download the newsletter in pdf from the bottom of the main article on the Bristol Indymedia site here.

ROADKILL

What is it about cars that dehumanizes us? How is it possible that someone can carelessly careen a ton of steel into an innocent man and then drive away as if nothing had happened? How can NINE drivers, one after the other, swerve around the victim– somebody’s grandfather– lying in the street bleeding to death as if he were a sack of potatos and do absolutely fucking nothing? Is this some horrible vision of the future where 4-wheeled robots have enslaved humanity and where our bodies are cheap fodder for the mechanized master race? What the fuck, people?

The disturbing scene above is repeated tens of millions of times on the Earth every year, an increasing massacre that we mostly accept without hesitation- not just a policy decision to trade the destruction of millions of lives for mass car use, but the audacity to resist measures that will begin to reduce the body count- like traffic calming, cycle, pedestrian, and public transport priority measures- because……they will add a minute or two to a driver’s journey and well, we simply cannot accept that.

We are so self-absorbed with the urgent need to get to our destinations, the groupthink that we are cool and hip while driving our death monsters so all-encompassing, the social norms propping up the motorized status quo so effective, our bloodlust so mediated by the cold scientific pursuit of traffic management and congestion reduction, that the truth of what we are actually doing remains hidden from us.

I normally decry CCTV, but in this case it has opened a window on our car culture- revealed to us in all its glaring, ugly and nightmarish detail the daily trade in traffic for heartbeats- the utter selfishness of driving, the total subjugation of the pedestrian in a world of Chryslers, Fords, and Toyotas- in short exactly what Hannah Arendt, while reporting on the Nuremberg Trials, referred to as the banality of evil.

What is is this strange drug, this intoxication of petrol and power, that makes even your virulently anti-car blogger (on the very rare occasions that he gets behind the wheel) feel frustrated at the pedestrians blocking his way and the old lady cyclist trundling down the slip road. “Get on with it you old bag!” I try to swallow and control that insatiable urge to press the accelerator- that unfulfilled potential to just go faster- to take just one more hit of that beautiful lusty gasoline g-force high.

Put down the syringe, stub out the cigarette, pour out the booze, park that car, take a deep breath, and remember what’s important in this life on this beautiful blue marble floating in space, this green oasis threatened by greed and fear. Break the chains. Refuse to participate. Sit in the front of the bus. Another world is possible.

“Designated Parking Zone (historically this was called a pavement)”

Sometimes a blog comes along that hits the nail on the head, taps into the zeitgeist, and crystallizes what people have been murmuring for years, and which has recently reached epidemic proportions. The sheer volume of cars has not only made most streets in Bristol unlivable, they are now encroaching on the last refuge of the pedestrian- the pavement (sidewalk). The time has come for a backlash!

The brand new darkly hilarious Bristol Cars Blog is a spot on, timely and incisive criticism of the attitudes and behaviour that threaten quality of life in Bristol. Truly the front line against anti-social driving in Bristol. Read it and pass it on.

Car-Free Moving Day

img_4819.jpg

A friend of mine recently reminded me of the bicycle based move I did in San Francisco in 2002. If you’ve never done a car-free move, I highly recommend it. Invite all your friends, their bikes, and their trailers, and as many bungee cords as they can scrounge up. Then buy them all pizza and beer (alcoholic beverages recommended only after the move for obvious reasons) and then have at it! Here I am hauling my king size mattress and box spring down Haight St. as the tourists and hippies stared at us.  You can see one of the benefits of moving mattresses by bike is that it’s a whole lot easier to take the lane!  We were joined by several kids on bikes, who kept wanting rids on the mattress.  I think we took the concept of traffic calming to a whole new level that day….

img_4814.jpg

Here we are tying down the mattress to the large industrial strength bicycle trailer that we borrowed from the SF Bicycle Coalition. Luckily we only had to move a few blocks, and it was downhill.

img_4816.jpg

Moving by bike is a form of direct action. It says to the world, “look what can be done without cars- moving house is one of the times when you think a car would be really necessary. But if it’s possible to move your stuff by bike, imagine what’s possible on a daily basis.” It is truly amazing what you can carry on a bicycle. I think we were inspired by the guy below.

chinabike.jpg

“Modally Agnostic”

westminster-b.jpg

Yesterday I attended the unfortunately named “Driving Change” seminar at London’s City Hall, a “half day seminar exploring solutions to traffic congestion in London.” Jacqui Wilkinson, head of sustainable travel initiatives at the Department for Transport, spoke about all the trial cycling and walking initiatives they are pursuing (important programs to be sure, but which put together amount to only about the cost of one mile of motorway construction). In other words, crumbs off the table of the petrol fueled banquet.

She then said something that was extraordinary, considering the UK government’s urgent statements about climate change. Considering the fact that cars and planes are the fastest growing sources of carbon dioxide in the UK. Considering the potential for public transport, cycling and walking to reduce this atmospheric dumping.

She said that when it comes to transport, the UK government is “modally agnostic” — meaning that they treat all travel modes equally. Wouldn’t do to express a preference in favour of non-motorized modes and public transport. You might offend drivers and frequent flyers, god forbid. No matter if the capital is threatened with inundation from rising sea levels in part due to our incessant and increasing flying and driving.  Modal agnosticism in the face of climate chaos, it seems to me, is giving up the battle before we’ve even started fighting.

I was beginning to despair for the future of the country and its capital on the Thames, when a man named Christian Wolmar gave an upbeat speech in which he decried making lists of transport improvements and instead called for an overall vision in transport planning, and tore to pieces the government’s “modal agnosticism.” Thank god for people like him.

I tried to ask a question after the session, but they didn’t call on me, so I went up to Jacqui afterwards at the reception, and asked her about the wisdom of “modal agnosticism”: “When the scientific evidence for human induced climate change is now cemented, how can we continue to pretend that the rapid growth in driving and flying are acceptable? The government is certainly not agnostic on the issue of cigarette smoking and lung cancer.” She replied, “well changes in attitude take time– it took 40 years for action to be taken on smoking.” I replied, “yes but we don’t have 40 years to deal with this issue….” I was met with uncomfortable looks all around. This is the achilles heal of their transport policy, the elephant in the room.

This government is clearly unable to show any kind of real leadership on this issue, instead content to offer crumbs, platitudes, and excuses for real action. By hiding behind a veil of “modal agnosticism” while pretending to be leaders on the issue of climate change, they are guilty of a dangerous kind of doublespeak- paying lip service to the greener modes and action on climate change while mollycoddling widespread denial about the true nature of global warming, and allowing our fossil fueled habits to continue unchecked.

We need leadership and we need a new vision for transport, one that represents a radical departure from the old stale 20th century petrol dependent status quo. If that means the government getting a little religion around the issue of the climate, and promoting car and plane-free lifestyles, then hallelujah- bring it on! I wouldn’t hold your breath though. The likes of British Airways and Shell will ensure that the corporate profits keep rolling in as long as possible come hell or high water….

It’s Up to Old Blighty

_44300079_co2_cumulative_emis_203gr.gif
Two weeks ago, the NASA scientist James Hansen released a statement calling upon the UK and Germany to reject planned coal fired power plants as these countries have a “historic responsibility” to combat climate change. According to his calculations, the UK has the highest per capita contribution to CO2 emissions already in the atmosphere (as you can see in the chart above).

That’s right Britons- especially rich Britons- are you paying attention? We are responsible for more excess carbon molecules in the air than the US or China or India or anyone else on the planet. We started this mess with the Manchester factories of the industrial revolution, and their mechanized mass production based on coal, and some of us have become extraordinarily- almost ridiculously- wealthy in the process. We now have a moral duty to be a world leader in the transition away from fossil fuels- yet we are planning new coal mines like the one in Wales planned to extract 10m tons of coal over the next 17 years, motorway widenings, and a third runway at Heathrow airport. From the capitalist growth economy perspective, there are truly no limits.

If we continue along this path, future generations will not think of the double decker bus, cute red phoneboxes, or the Beatles when they think of the UK- they will think of the worst climate criminals on the face of the planet, too blinded by our own avarice to change our ways- hooking the world on a dirty energy habit, and refusing to cut down ourselves even when serious problems are on the horizon.

This is one possible scenario- and a depressing one surely- but there is another storyline- one of a rapid awakening, a transition to a less consumer oriented culture, renewable energy, local communities and food production, cities where you can breathe again and cycling and walking is prioritized. We can make it happen, but the people have to lead. If the English lead, surely the citizens of other countries will sit up and take notice and want a piece of what we’ve got. And that’s an export we can all live with.

Carbon Detox: Time to Get Real

detox.jpg

It’s not easy to admit that something that forms the basis of our lives and our societies could be leading us down a path of destruction, disorder and incredible suffering. Our addiction to fossil fuels is a lot like nicotine addiction- we come up with a whole set of psychological mechanisms to justify continuing our current behaviour, even as the warnings are growing louder and the side-effects more irritating (and as someone who is struggling with giving up smoking I can relate, believe me).

How can we begin to take responsibility? Accept that our loving family flying from all around the world to meet for a reunion is causing extreme weather that is leading to the breakup of someone else’s family in the developing world? Accept that when I boil a kettle to make a cup of tea (although it is a minor impact compared with aviation) I am also part of the problem.

There are no easy answers- this is a rapidly evolving area where social norms and morality are struggling to keep up with the latest scientific findings. But it seems that a man named George Marshall, who is also behind the Climate Denial website and the Climate Outreach and Information Network has thought about this problem a hell of a lot, and has produced what I think is the most important book ever written on climate change, called Carbon Detox- Your step-by-step guide to getting real about climate change.

Important because it could actually make a difference where hundreds of others have failed. It’s like a self-help book without the dogma. A call to action without the guilt. And have you ever read a book on climate change that encourages you to drive a Ferrari Testarossa around a racetrack at 160 mph or race a speedboat off the coast of Cornwall? I didn’t think so.

I can’t find strong enough words to recommend this book– you should buy it for yourself and for everyone you know for the holidays. Request it at your local bookstore, or order it from Amazon today.

Until further notice, please feel free to ridicule the Bay Area Air “Inequality” Management District

baaqmd_memo.jpg

This memo was sent out in August to employees of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the government agency in charge of improving air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area, and revealed to the public on Jon’s Bikescape blog. Following is my response. Please feel free to write to the human resources officer at the address below, and post your letter in the comments section.

To: mrich@baaqmd.gov

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

Dear Michael Rich, BAAQMD “Human” Resources:

I understand you are the author of a memo (dated August 9th) that has gone out to BAAQMD employees telling them they won’t be allowed to cycle during work hours. By the grace of God, tell me this was a prank. A sick joke perhaps? A late April Fool’s Joke?

Now I’m beginning to fear this memo was actually for real. If this is true, do you realize how ridiculous this makes you look?

There are thousands of kids throughout the Bay Area who are suffering day and night from asthma because of motor vehicle traffic, and you are chastising the very employees who are living the kind of lifestyles that would begin to reduce this shame? Perhaps BAAQMD needs a fleet of Hummers to protect their employees when they go about the very important business of improving air quality in the Bay Area. Why not tanks?

Your memo is currently making the rounds on the internet and you have become a laughing stock. Congratulations. Can you even begin to see the absurdity of your words or are you and your agency simply too wedded to personal automobility at any cost? Perhaps you are suffering from carbon monoxide inhalation, and need a long bike ride down the coast to detox?  Oh but that would violate your policy wouldn’t it?

I know now why you call it the Bay Area Air Quality MANAGEMENT District- you don’t sincerely want to IMPROVE air quality- you just want to MANAGE it. Manage the toxic soup we are all forced to breathe at a level of toxicity where the federal government won’t take away our precious highway funding. Manage it at a level that will allow rich people to continue driving their 4×4′s through poor neighbourhoods and causing cancer, asthma, and premature death without mothers and fathers sisters and brothers picking up sticks and stones and confronting the blindly habitual motorists slowly killing their children and leading us into climate chaos for which we will be judged without mercy by perpetuity.

Perhaps instead of worrying about liability for collisions, you could provide cycle training to reduce the risk. And as you would know if you did any actual research on the topic, cycling is much safer than driving when cyclists ride safely and predictably. But I imagine that in your closed minded little world, cyclists are just in the way of your Lincoln Navigator.

Navigate this:

Your policy is shortsighted, uninformed, and counterproductive to the stated policy and aims of your organization, as well as your moral duty to protect our air quality. You are failing the taxpayers of the Bay Area who pay your salary. You should be fired. Better yet, the social norms that allow a memo like this to go unquestioned in an agency like yours should be systematically dismantled for good.

It is 2007, not 1955. Wake up.

Sincerely,

Joshua Hart
Bay Area resident currently living in Bristol UK

(currently forwarding your memo to all my European friends. Do you hear that sound? It’s their chins dropping in disbelief, because they didn’t believe me when I told them that Americans could be this far in denial about cars and their impact on the environment.)

Stop at Red? The Ethics and Politics of Cyclist Red Light Running

traffic_lights.jpg

A new campaign has been launched in the UK called Stop at Red encouraging cyclists to sign up to ‘pledge’ their obedience to traffic signals. This campaign raises a whole host of issues for me.  I think it is well intentioned but unfortunately wholly misguided.  I guess I should start out by saying that I run red lights all the time, routinely, and I’m not ashamed of it and I won’t apologize for it.  Of course I never take anyone else’s right of way, and I only run the light if there’s no one coming.   There are a hell of a lot of lights in Bristol that seem to stay red for no particular reason.  Everyone just sits and waits.  We’re very well trained.

The sponsors of this campaign are confusing safe behaviour with law-abiding behaviour.   You can follow every law and still put yourself in a terribly dangerous position (i.e. in the door zone).   By the same token, you can slow and look around carefully at red lights and stop signs and proceed when no one is coming and you’ll likely never get into trouble.   Blindly following the law is a recipe for getting hurt on your bike.  Better to trust your own hearing, sight, and instincts than the government’s rigid idea of ‘health and safety’ which is quickly spiraling out of control, as evidenced by the recent replacement of a Guy Fawkes Bonfire with a video of a bonfire in Devon.

Cyclist red light running to me falls into the category of a victimless crime.  If a cyclist runs a light and no one’s coming, who is harmed?   The moral sensibilities of the people sitting in their cars at the light?  Please.  Where’s the habeus corpus here, people?

I think it is a noble goal to have every road user obey the law and get along great, but unfortunately we live in a society where the needs of one class of road user are prioritised at the expense of more vulnerable road users.   Cyclists are consistently hit, threatened, maimed, their air polluted, environment degraded, and then we say, oh you must EARN the respect of the car driving classes and they may offer you a few more crumbs off the table.  This is a little like saying to oppressed minorities, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “if you only acted in x, y, z ways you’d be equal, and all the -isms would vanish”

You know what- look at crosswalks- pedestrians running red lights is rampant.   Why isn’t anyone running a campaign to “improve the image of pedestrians” or raise the lowly image of the pedestrian as a “social out group”?  Of course this sounds ridiculous, about as ridiculous as this ‘stop at red’ campaign would sound to the Dutch, where cycling is a normal part of life that practically everyone engages in.

How did cyclists gain an equal, even elevated status in the Netherlands?   It wasn’t from some preachy campaign to encourage Dutch cyclists to follow the law.  No, it was because air pollution and gridlock was becoming so bad in the 1970’s that the population, and their politicians said enough is enough.  As car traffic was restricted, cycling and walking were prioritized. Now the Dutch have some of the most accessible, livable city centres in the world.   We can only hope that our pols here in the UK see the same light.

Cyclists in the Netherlands are some of the most law abiding in the world.  Why?  Because the law is reasonable and the government treats cyclists as if they have a right to the road.   In order to level the transport playing field, cyclists and pedestrians must be prioritized on account of the sheer physical weight, speed, and danger of cars– their parasitical effect on the body of urbanity.

Cycling groups such as the CTC have led the fight for cyclists to be treated the same as vehicles on the road.   These rights have been hard fought and won.   But being treated the same as a vehicle is a double edged sword, and the sharp end is hurting cyclists more than ever, I would argue.  Cyclists have de jure access to the entire road network (aside from motorways) yet more and more roads are de facto off limits to cyclists and pedestrians.   This is an extremely serious problem in rural England, where villagers who have walked or cycled along country lanes for years now find themselves excluded because of the rapidly growing traffic.  And of course these people often drive as a result, adding to the problem.  Exclusion of anyone not burning petroleum on our ‘public’ rights-of-way while our Arctic ice caps are melting is a scandal and injustice of epic proportions.

The bicycle is a kind of a hybrid animal– somewhere between a pedestrian and a vehicle, and we need to treat it as such.   Blaming cyclists for driving the wrong way down a one way street or running a stop light is a little like telling pedestrians to walk one-way on pavements.  Let’s stop trying to fit the round peg of cycling into the square hole of overly regimented traffic regulations.

The bottom line is that red lights and other rigid, auto based traffic rules are only necessary to keep the awkward and clumsy movements of cars packed into an urban area from killing and maiming more than they already do.  Why should cyclists, who aren’t the cause of this madness, be caught up in the same wide net as cars?  The solution is not to campaign for cyclists’ obedience to traffic lights, but to change the law to better reflect the reality of our transport systems.   In Idaho, the law allows cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs and red lights like stop signs.  What a sensible idea.  Let’s focus our energies on the suitability of our laws rather than putting our energy into preachy campaigns that blame the victim.