From the West Side: A 'Roadmap' for City Streets

by Anne Schwartz, Nov 24, 2008

Last year's campaign to create more people-friendly streets on the Upper West Side was launched with visions of Copenhagen or Paris, or at least of closing Broadway to cars. But what has emerged from a yearlong collaboration of the community, transportation experts and advocacy groups is a more modest set of proposals that can be put in place piecemeal and at a relatively low cost. Together, however, these streetscape changes could make the Upper West Side a much greener and safer place and set a precedent for other neighborhoods.

The report, the Blueprint for the Upper West Side: A Roadmap for Truly Livable Streets, proposes a number of design elements, including physically separated bike lanes in both directions along Broadway's median, extended curbs and raised crosswalks at intersections and parking spots replaced with sidewalk "bulb-outs" for seating, bicycle parking, greenery and garbage pick-up.

The effort aims to ride the momentum of the city's new focus on the streets as public space. The debate over the plan on the Upper West Side could be played out in neighborhoods across the city as the administration and transportation advocates come up with similar proposals for those communities.

The Upper West Side Streets Renaissance Campaign "is the community's effort to put it on a silver platter for a Department of Transportation that's interested in seeing a lot of good change roll out," said Wiley Norvell, spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, one of the groups working on the plan.

The plan has the support of the neighborhood's elected officials, including Councilmember Gale Brewer, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Borough President Scott Stringer. So far, the Bloomberg administration is noncommittal. Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Gastel said, "The study proposed some interesting ideas for the Upper West Side, which we will keep in mind as we look for ways to improve the area."

But entrenched attitudes about driving and, especially, parking in the neighborhood could pose obstacles to implementing the full range of proposals. Any street changes would require support from the local community board, which has to balance a wide range of interests.

"I think the community as a whole is hungry for the changes," said Helen Rosenthal, chairwoman of Community Board 7, "but it does mean for some people giving up things they've become accustomed to."

A Changing View of City Streets

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to reduce traffic through congestion pricing failed, the Department of Transportation, under commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, has gone into high gear to make the streets more livable in other ways. Over the last three years, the department has created new pedestrian plazas, built 200 miles of bicycle lanes, closed streets on summer weekends and launched new programs for safer streets for seniors and schoolchildren. It is looking at how to improve especially congested corridors throughout the city in ways that meet the needs of all users, not just drivers..

The department presented its new planning approach in a recent report, World Class Streets. "Designing streets as great places for people and not just as utilitarian corridors for vehicles takes full advantage of New York's density and vibrancy — it's a new frontier in ensuring that New York remains the greatest city in the world," said Sadik-Khan.

The Upper West Side Plan

A 2006 study by Transportation Alternatives found that people living on streets with heavy traffic go out less often and have fewer friends and acquaintances. Three quarters of Upper West Side residents live within two blocks of a congested road. The designs proposed in the Upper West Side blueprint aim to make the streets greener, quieter, safer and more accessible and ultimately to create street life and a sense of community many say the increasingly dense neighborhood lacks.

"People want something green and they want to sit and they want to socialize," said Brewer. "From talking to the BIDs [area's Business Improvement Districts], it helps small merchants, too. If people linger, they buy things."

To improve pedestrian safety, the plan calls for widening curbs at all corners of every intersection — starting with temporary extensions at major street crossings — and installing bollards or planters at corners to protect people standing there. It also proposes raised crosswalks to make pedestrians more visible to drivers and re-timing the lights to allow slower-moving pedestrians time to cross.

Sidewalk extensions would be used to make the streetscape more pleasant in other ways: adding public seating, bicycle parking, trees and greenery and moving garbage and recycling collection out of the path of pedestrians.

Another goal is to calm traffic on the smaller cross-streets, making residential blocks safer places for children to play as well as for bicyclists. The prototype looks almost suburban to a New Yorker accustomed to the grid. Angled parking narrows the street to one lane. Halfway down the block, curved sidewalk extensions on opposite sides of the street create a zigzag that cars must navigate, and the parking switches to the other side. Greenery or benches go on the extra bit of public real estate.

Another major goal of the blueprint is to make bicycling safer and easier in the neighborhood. It proposes physically separated bicycle lanes along Columbus and Amsterdam avenues. The two middle lanes of traffic on each side of the Broadway Malls become protected bike paths. Slowing the crosstown streets would make it easier for bicyclists to ride between Central and Riverside parks.

Other safety features include continuing painted bike lanes through intersections and creating "bike boxes" at the front of intersections where cyclists waiting at red lights would be more visible to drivers.

The Effect on Traffic

Although the blueprint aims to reduce traffic congestion by creating more delivery zones to discourage double parking and by raising the price of parking so fewer people drive around looking for a spot, many drivers are no happier with some of its proposals than they were with congestion pricing.

Cabdriver Abubakar Abdullah told the New York Post, "It's going to cause a lot more traffic, and especially rush hour will be crazy. We already have the same problem on Ninth Avenue below 34th Street because of the bicycle lanes. Motorists have rights, too."

Bicycle and pedestrian advocates point out that only 10 percent of Upper West Side residents commute by car, yet the neighborhood is dominated by automobile traffic.

Transportation planners say that reducing space for driving and parking ultimately encourages people to turn to other forms of transportation, with the overall effect of reducing traffic. In New York City, 90 percent of people who commute by car have other options.

Speaking at the release of the blueprint at P.S. 87, renowned Danish urban planner Jan Gehl told a crowd of Upper West Siders that Copenhagen has been transformed over the last 30 years as the city gradually reduced the number of cars entering the city and put together a door-to-door bicycle network. As a result, traffic has decreased and 36 percent of commuters bicycle to work.

New York is lucky because it has wide streets, Gehl said. "Wide streets enable us to have a nice comfortable sidewalk, a nice bike lane, a nice row of street trees, a bus lane, and a median. And even have a couple of lanes for cars also."

The Parking Problem

The proposed conversion of a small percentage of parking spots to other uses could be the biggest stumbling block for some of the streetscape improvements in the plan, said the Community Board's Helen Rosenthal. Many of the elements that would make the neighborhood more livable require the sacrifice of parking spots or an increase in the price of parking at meters.

Finding a parking spot on the Upper West Side is notoriously difficult. Residents long accustomed to parking their cars for free — if they can find a spot — turn out in force when the Community Board considers requests to remove even one or two spaces.

"There are many brilliant ideas in there that won't require changing parking. We should move forward on those quickly," Rosenthal said. "The ones that do involve parking, bring 'em on. Let's address them publicly and hear from every side."

Where support is strong, changes can go into effect block by block, project by project, according to advocates and city officials who support the blueprint. At P.S. 87, they urged residents to ask the community board and elected representatives for specific changes on the street.

"This is a moment in time to meld those greening ideas and good transportation ideas," said Brewer. "If you can't do it now, I don't know when you can."