The Weakest Link: Traffic

New York has clear options about the direction it will take in the 21st Century. The city can choose to either stay the course of worsening traffic and sterile streets, or redirect its energies to promote great public spaces and lively streetlife.

The greatest opportunity to make the right choice lies with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), whose policies have a huge impact on community life in all five boroughs. While New York residents over the past 30 years have worked tirelessly to improve the public realm in their neighborhoods, DOT has yet to keep pace. The rejuvenation or creation of many valuable public spaces has been accomplished largely through the dedicated work of citizens’ groups and the private sector. These efforts have had to contend with a bureaucratic bias in favor of more cars and busier, more dangerous streets. If this wellspring of civic energy were fully embraced by city leaders, it would revolutionize how things are done in New York.

However, New York’s current policies favor cars and trucks, even in residential areas, and most city streets no longer serve as vital public spaces. Vehicles move at dangerously high speeds for city streets–even in the vicinity of schools, senior citizen housing, and neighborhood shopping areas. “Rat running” (barrelling down neighborhood streets to save time) has become an accepted solution to congestion. The streets of New York have become torrents of hostile traffic, not the rivers of city life. If we continue to plan for cars and traffic, we will get more cars and worse traffic. If we start planning for people and places, we will get happier people and better places.

The misplaced focus of New York transportation officials on moving vehicles has had serious consequences for the city, limiting its potential as a vibrant place where streetlife flourishes. By contrast, many other cities PPS has studied are taking major steps to level the playing field between cars, pedestrians, bikes and transit (see sidebar). DOT can catch up to these leading cities and even surpass them. Recent initiatives suggest a newfound willingness to use transportation planning to complement community development, though it remains to be seen if DOT will follow through in practice.

The negative impact of traffic on New York neighborhoods is compounded by a short-sighted city policy that enables suburban-style “big box” stores to locate in areas underserved by transit. Any long term vision for New York’s future should decrease, not promote, urban residents’ need to own and use cars. The Red Hook waterfront, for example, is the wrong site for an auto-oriented IKEA outlet, which will generate scores of vehicle trips. Big retail stores fit best in areas that are already well-served by transit and don’t require parking lots, while the neighborhoods where such stores are currently sited would benefit from more creative strategies for economic and community development.

A new role for government

The energy found in the neighborhoods of New York is inspiring, evidenced by the attention people devote to what happens around their homes and in nearby parks and shopping districts. However, as in other global cities we have examined (Paris, London, Barcelona), the public is far removed from the basic decisions that affect the vitality of public spaces–which are crucial to so many people’s lives. Citizens understand how critical these matters are to the health of their neighborhoods. But city officials have kept concerned citizens at a distance from the larger citywide issues of transportation, development, and urban design. New York needs to involve communities in addressing these larger issues. The city has a propensity to shoot itself in the foot by embracing developments that are out of scale, too dependent on vehicles, damaging to local businesses, or characterized by flashy but impractical design unsuited for urban neighborhoods.

We believe the biggest challenge in assuring the future vitality of New York is to bring its major municipal departments (Planning, Transportation, Economic Development, and Parks) back into alignment with the rich vision for the city articulated by its citizens. When government officials map out plans according to the dictates of certain disciplines (seeing their audience as other members of that profession, not the citizens of the city) they are no longer serving the public. Our view, which comes from what we’ve seen as we travel and work all over the world, is that by focusing on creating places, you do everything differently. A “Placemaking” approach would mark a fundamental shift for the city, a transformation that would pay off for New York in a big way.

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