NY and SF Demonstrate That Better Pedestrian Amenities Create Stronger Communities

Recent pilot programs in New York City and San Francisco demonstrate something that Livable Streets Advocates have known all along: by opening "car space" to the public, one can dramatically reduce car traffic and increase livability and sense of community.  While it’s true that the concepts demonstrated by our friends to the north and the east are seemingly alien to the folks at City Hall these days; we’ve learned that once Livable Streets activism reaches the tipping point, things can happen quickly. Thus, we need to continue to celebrate and highlight some of the success stories in other cities.

The New York example is the more dramatic of the two case.  The above video, narrated by Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton, is a tour of Broadway’s car-free squares.  As Mark says, the counterintuitive truth is that taking away space for
cars can improve traffic while making the city safer and more enjoyable
for everyone on foot. There are sound theories that help explain why
this happens — concepts like traffic shrinkage and Braess’s paradox which
are getting more and more attention thanks to projects like this one.

When the plan to create these plazas at the expense of car-travel lanes was first announced, some of the local press in New York predicted doom for Broadway travelers.  One paper even went so far as to call the soon-to-be-created traffic disaster "Carmageddon."  Unsurprisingly, Carmageddon has been forestalled.

In San Francisco, new pedestrian plazas on 17th Street are having a similar effect.  The San Francisco Great Streets Project has surveyed residents surrounding the new plazas and found that…

…residents of the Castro neighborhood who felt a strong sense of community character rose from 76% to 89% after the plaza opened and those who considered the pedestrian experience of the area as positive rose from 79% to 84%.

Their survey also found that people were spending more time in the plaza, views of the plaza turned it from a "route" to a place and destination, and residents of the Castro neighborhood now want more…more open space and more outdoor amenities.

The SFGSP also has some great "before" and "after" pictures of the plaza that really demonstrate the sweeping changes a little investment can make in a community.

(editor’s note: this post leaned heavily on the writing of Clarence Eckerson Jr. in NY and Matthew Roth in San Francisco.)

  • Thanks, Damien.

    The more people see these things for themselves the more they want it for themselves.

  • Just out of curiosity, where in LA do you think would be a prime area to try this. I’d personally like to see some of the Farmer’s Market parking lot (at the mouth of the Grove) turned into a park.

  • DJB

    Does taking space away from cars have to reduce traffic to be worthwhile? I would argue the answer is no. It’s not realistic to expect it to always have this effect. Not every city functions like Manhattan and San Francisco (places which have well developed public transit, and are compact, dense, walkable, and mixed-use). But so what? There are so many important social goals out there, and free-flowing car traffic is only one of them.

    I think it would be harder but more honest to say to people: “I want to take space away from cars and give it to people, it’ll probably make car traffic slower, but it’s worth it because . . .”

  • DJB,

    Are you retarded or something?

    It isn’t more honest to say “”I want to take space away from cars and give it to people, it’ll probably make car traffic slower.”

    It is FALSE. Did you even see the film? Cars are able to move more freely on less crowded streets. Hello? McFly?

  • DJB

    ubrayj02,

    Did anybody ever tell you how tactful you are?

    Say I take out a lane in a street and give it to bikes. Any traffic model will predict that the vehicle traffic will slow down. This is a standard assumption used in planning and it is not without justification in most situations.

    Perhaps you can frustrate drivers enough, by taking space away from them, hence slowing them down, to cause the mode splits to change in a place with good transit and opportunities to walk, like SF or NY. But to say that taking space away from cars will reduce traffic in every instance is far fetched at best.

    But, if you look at my point, so what? I think we should be willing to advocate for taking space away from cars even if it makes traffic slower.

  • ARGH!

    “Standard traffic modeling” = one-day effects of lane removal.

    What happens on day two and three, and month 6?

    As is clear in the film above, something quite counter intuitive happens: car trips are reduced and there is less traffic!

    Sorry for being rude. It is impossible to change minds that way, and I appreciate your response.

  • DJB

    The area in the video is walking distance away from several train stops, including Penn Station. The traffic analysis is not systematic: it doesn’t examine anything other than the immediate vicinity. Finally, in a place more car dependent than downtown Manhattan, taking such a heavy hand against cars in too many places can cause economic disaster (which isn’t to say that places like Santa Monica’s Promenade aren’t awesome).

    If this video were the traffic analysis in an EIR it would get the *^%#* sued out of it.

    This may well be great advice for places in NY, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple matter to do this everywhere.

  • I am sorry, but the burden of proof for your opinion is on you. If you take away car lanes, vehicle volumes and delays are typically reduced, over time (all other things being equal). If you only measure day one, after a lane has been removed, of course there are delays. That is how traffic engineers model traffic – they try and ignore human psychology and needs as much as possible, and to treat drivers as anonymous particles in a waste stream.

    I’d love to see that lawsuit you warn about, because there is enough science on the books about this sort of thing to permanently shut up engineers (and their middle managers) who claim what you’re claiming.

    The political calculation for plazas like this is: better streets for people and less car access equals less congestion on the roads.

  • Spokker

    “DJB,

    Are you retarded or something?”

    Haha, this guy posted an argument that had zero personal attacks and zero vitriol, an argument that you happened to disagree with, and you *still* attack him. The guy isn’t even saying he is against these kinds of pedestrian spaces. You really are a piece of shit.

  • DJB

    No worries.

    I kind of view the decision to drive in economic terms, like the decision to purchase any commodity. If the cost of driving (in terms of time or money) goes up, your quantity demanded goes down, other things equal. However, the price of “substitute goods” to driving is important too. E.g. if the time cost of using transit is really high because the transit has infrequent service, or the risk of biking is really high because there isn’t adequate provision for bicycles in the street, the cost of driving has to get really high, before people consider abandoning it.

    This seems to be similar to what the video’s narrator was saying: if you want to get rid of cars, get rid of parking, get rid of road capacity. It’s true that you can eliminate traffic, by making driving basically impossible. If I lived in NY and used to drive in that area (which I wouldn’t, because why would you drive into Manhattan when there are such awesome subways ? :) I would either try driving on another street or give up driving for that trip if I could.

    However, then the issue becomes, are there adequate means for people to get around?

    In downtown Manhattan, the answer is clearly yes. In, say, Palmdale, and all the places like it, which are much more typical of American city/suburbs, the answer is, sadly, no.

  • DJB

    This topic is near-and-dear to my heart because I’m taking a certain course in transportation planning, at a certain local university (which shall remain nameless), which is depressingly mired in the transportation engineer’s mentality (i.e. the only thing that matters is making it easier for cars to drive quickly).

    I need counterarguments that can withstand the scrutiny of seasoned traffic consultants whose attitudes to pedestrians, bikes, and transit are best described as an alternation between amusement and contempt.

    The counteragruments also need to address the reality of the CA Env. Quality Act, which essentially forces developers to do automobile-oriented mitigations to what they build, and punishes them for the kind of dense building that could eventually support good non-private-car transporation.

  • Well, I can guess it is USC. You can always count on some professor at USC to give the L.A. Times a quote against mass transit when they want one.

    Everyone should read Fred Camino’s essay on “Exposing Socialist Liberatrians” and the phony-belief that somehow automobiles are “free market” in America and therefore somehow superior.

    http://metroriderla.com/2008/04/03/exposing-socialist-libertarians/

  • Joe

    wooooo hooooo! This is really beautiful. Let’s do these in L.A. – guerilla style if need be.

  • Joe

    @djb… The video and Josef are right. You might want to read Peter Kenworthy. One problem is that traffic models assume traffic is like a liquid – it will follow the path of least resistance. Newer models show that it’s more like a gas – expanding to fill the available space. Watch the video… it’s actually really good.

  • DJB, I think I’ve spent the past few years learning the types of pat responses professional engineers give for their type of road design and planning schemes. The root of my disagreement with most of them is that, while they “understand” the simplified construct of “cars are to roads as sewage is to a sewer pipe”, they have no other metrics for measuring the transportation, sociological, cultural and economic impacts of their designs.

    You can survey residents in L.A. on streets that vary only in traffic volumes and find that lower traffic speeds and volumes correlate with increased social cohesion and increased feelings of safety extending outside of the homes of residents. This happens even in poor neighborhoods where street crime is an issue.

    Do they ever track and maintain databases of traffic injuries and deaths and seek to minimize them in absolute number? Nah, they just focus on increasing VMT to turn the deaths that occur into x deaths per 1 million miles travelled statistics. Somehow these folks have institutionalized being a sociopath.

    Do engineers do this sort of survey? Nah, they haven’t the time. They’re too busy pretending that humans driving cars are like particles of sand in an hourglass or some other logical fallacy.

    I spent a bit of time digging around the ITE’s (Institute for Transportation Engineers) web-site, read their history and a bunch of their white papers and pieced together my own perspective on this sort of thing.

    The up side of all this is that given a better set of required measurements, engineers are adept at designing a road to maximize what makes cities great and minimize the things that kill people, ruin local economies and culture.

  • Spokker

    If you’re going to take space away from cars you need to give people an alternative to get there. What DJB was saying is that in New York there is an alternative in that area, Penn Station. But in Los Angeles, there aren’t as many alternatives.

    If you take space from cars in a certain area, over the long term people realize that taking their car into that area is a bitch. They then do one of three things. Continue to deal with it (in the short term many people will do this), not go at all (halting economic activity. Sure this makes the area feel safer. But is anyone making money?), or seek out an alternative (if none is found, they go back to scenario one and two.

    Look at my school. It literally takes an hour to find parking at the start of the semester. Space was taken away for cars to complete construction recently. Do people take the bus into school (free with a swipe of your school ID), even temporarily until the parking situation calms down? Few people do.

    If we’re talking about a place like Santa Monica, the Wilshire subway (if it’s ever built) and the Expo Line become the perfect alternatives. Now we can take some space away from cars. Add in bike lanes, good feeder buses, and you’ve got yourself a pedestrian space.

  • This goes back to the Streetcar discussion.

    Build the Regional Connector and put in the streetcar, you have alternatives.

  • DJB

    In LA teaming up transit and parking garages is a formula that has a proven track record of creating vibrant pedestrian areas.

    The Promenade, Old Town Pasadena, parts of downtown LA, downtown Long Beach, downtown Glendale, Koreatown, 3rd & Fairfax, downtown El Segundo (check it out), Hollywood and Highland, etc. etc. etc.

    Ideally, we wouldn’t need the parking, but realistically, in LA, for now, it helps these areas out. Meanwhile walking, biking, and transit can fight to pull trips away from cars.

    One good thing about these garages is that they waste less land than surface parking, thus contributing less to the sprawl of the city (and detracting less from its walk- bike- and transit-ability). Another good thing about them is drivers are usually paying for their own parking, or at least part of their own parking, which Donald Shoup would smile upon.

    Are garages necessary in Manhattan? Probably not, most of the time. We’re dealing with a tougher problem here.

  • Joe

    @spokker:
    “But in Los Angeles, there aren’t as many alternatives.”

    I get tired of hearing that Los Angeles doesn’t have alternatives… that we need to wait for better transit before we work on great complete streets. More than 600,000 transit trips per day (second in the nation.) Hundreds of thousands of people here get around every day without a car. Compared to nearly anywhere else in the United States, L.A. already has plenty of transit. Our dense urban core neighborhoods were all developed around streetcars. We don’t need to wait for the fabled rail line that’s still many years off before we can do some serious work on reclaiming L.A.’s streets. Start now. Don’t wait. Give public space to people. Now. (and make that transit system better, too.)

    Responding to your “If you take space from cars in a certain area… [gloom and doom will ensue]”, I would suggest that you watch the video (you know the one up there at the top of the post.) The video shows that when you actually take space from cars in certain areas, people go there, the areas thrive, and people love it.

    @DJB:
    I am actually going to (gasp) agree with you, well, somewhat: off-street parking garages (which is expensive and consumes a lot of space) can play a role – they’re better than requiring all kinds of on-site parking at every business. I’d suggest creating places for people first (facilities for peds, bikes, and transit) and the car parking solutions will follow. Shoup might suggest that where there’s a market for parking, parking will show up.

  • Spokker

    “I get tired of hearing that Los Angeles doesn’t have alternatives…”

    Never said that Los Angeles doesn’t have alternatives. LA has made great strides in transit over the past couple of decades. It’s really amazing what has been done here, and even moreso considering how car-centric this region is.

    “We don’t need to wait for the fabled rail line that’s still many years off before we can do some serious work on reclaiming L.A.’s streets. ”

    Well, let’s say I wanted to go to Santa Monica and I live in East LA or Pasadena or South Central or Orange County. Hell maybe I just live in the mid-Wilshire district. The 720 is at capacity. I try to ride it but only so many people can get on before the bus driver says no more. This is in the middle of the day. I usually take the 20 but the other day I was late for work because even the 20 was packed to the gills and would not stop. If people are late too many times, they get fired.

    Do you really think people want to deal with this stuff? Call me a defeatist if you want, but I’m a realist. We need these “fabled” rail lines, especially the one that has been long planned under Wilshire Blvd.

    Reclaim all the space you want, but I caution you and others to not go overboard until the proper infrastructure is in place.

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