Sunday, April 6, 2008

Make way for the Pedestrians

These feet were made for walking.

I swear the New York Times and I are on the same wavelength lately. My friends J and G were in town from Denver so last night we met up for dinner at Bobo. I arrived on time but they got caught up in traffic and we almost lost our reservation. Luckily the host was quite understanding. My friends were quite frustrated on arrival.

It would have been quicker to walk here, J observed as we pondered our wine choices. I sympathized -- I can remember a couple of mornings where I was late for work and so I hailed a cab thinking it would be quicker. 40 minutes later I was often still in the cab stuck in midtown traffic. I told my friends that with the warmer weather I'd started walking home from work. It took about an hour to make it all 50+ blocks but it was well worth it. Taking a different path everyday had revealed some new city secrets that I wanted to photograph and some places I wanted to try out.

Initially I'd tried walking to work, but the foot traffic in midtown was impossible. Whether it was Park, Madison, 5th or even 3rd Ave, it was always the same story: crowded. I like to walk fast and the suits were holding me up. The sidewalks are not nearly wide enough to handle all the traffic.

We started talking about Colorado's many pedestrian malls. With the warmer weather it's more conducive to outdoor space -- from the 16th Street Mall to Pearl Street to Flatiron's Outdoor Plaza area. But New York City isn't always cold! Why not incorporate some of that here? I was at Worldwide Plaza earlier in the week to visit a client and they have a lovely walking area. Better yet, why not close off some streets to cars entirely? Where I live, it seems like not every street needs car access. So cut off the cars. Take out the pavement and being back some cobble stone ways...or better yet, some greenways.

Enter the New York Times. Today their city section has an article about similar ideas to increase pedestrian space in the city. It's a great time to try this. The green movement is becoming ever more popular.

Really, the pedestrian movement comes down to three things:
  1. Reducing the amount of traffic in Manhattan. We're hopefully already moving in that direction with the congestion pricing proposal.
  2. Giving children more safe places to play. Children need less structured playtime that Astroturf provides. Imagine neighborhood baseball games in the street. Block parties. Block-long strips of lawn and gardens.
  3. Providing safe areas for bicycles, joggers, dog-walking, etc. Bike lanes around the city are mostly a joke. I've seen so many near-misses. The only options are to make barriers between the car-bike areas or to make bike-only streets. I'm all for the latter.
One of my favorite ideas mentioned in the NYT article was closing 42nd St to cars and making it pedestrian-only (mentioned on page 2 of the article). The article also suggested building a light-rail there so that commuters arriving in Grand Central could still get around. I think it this brilliant for a few reasons. Since Park Ave rises and splits to go around the Helmsley building there there would be less impact to traffic patterns. And the area is already populated with a good mix of residential buildings and shops -- the perfect test area for a Pedestrian Mall. Building a light rail encourages the movement.

Of course, the city's infrastructure would need to support this urban acupuncture. First, a deeper mass transit system would be needed...increased frequency of subway trains, shorter buslines with more buses running them, a more developed local-to-express balance, and increased service to the boroughs. The police force would need to be expanded to support extra foot, bike and horse patrols. And the city's parks department would require additional staffing to care for the new green areas.

The investment is completely worth it though. Air quality would increase and people would be healthier. We'd be further encouraging an active, healthy lifestyle. And it would increase the community aspect. All too often my friends and I discuss how hard it is to meet new people here. I don't know modern technology has made it harder or easier for mine than previous generations, but I do feel that there's a social aspect of New York City that is missing. Perhaps it is naïve. I would love to find out.

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