Change the Street, Change the World

"Good planning experts make a world of positive difference."

These were the opening remarks from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro at the luncheon plenary at APA's Policy and Advocacy Conference.

During his remarks, Castro emphasized how a wide array of cities and regions are turning their ingenuity and resources to meeting common challenges, especially more affordable housing, economic mobility, and opportunity for individuals and families.

Castro cited the example of Prosperity Playbook, the toolkit created by HUD with assistance from APA and the National League of Cities. He stated that Prosperity Playbook will help other communities know what is working and enable them to put these solutions into practice within their own community.

Janette Sadik-Khan continued the theme of ingenuity in her remarks. She asked the audience, "What do you think of when you think about streets?"

Curbs. Cars. Bikes. Complete. Utilities. Potholes. Safety. Movement.

The chorus of answers to the question posed by Janette Sadik-Khan were not surprising, given the audience of planners.

Sadik-Khan is perhaps best known for the transformative work done by the New York City Department of Transportation when she was its commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Today she works for Bloomberg Associates, and is the author of the book, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.

Back to her opening query. Planners, of course, think of the interrelated, multifaceted roles that streets play in our communities. But most people think of one thing: Moving cars.

It wasn't always the case. In black and white photos of commercial thoroughfares in bustling cities, streetcars, horses, carriages, automobiles, and people on foot navigate the street together. Not so today, when we have a "dashboard view" of streets, Sadik-Khan said. "Our choices for getting around have been whittled away." Now places are built for cars — with "devastating results," she added.

Reclaiming the streets for people is a struggle, but possible. The trouble is, it never was a fair fight. Sadik-Khan refers to the federal standards that govern street design, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, as a "500-page 10 Commandments." There are the many images in that manual, but "they forgot one thing: people," she said.

That's changing.

Bike lane in Prospect Park West. Photo by Flickr user Dmitri Gudkov (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Dramatic shifts in how New York City moves people started with 2006's PlaNYC, a plan to accommodate 1 million more New Yorkers by 2030, and strategic plans that followed. Transforming New York, however, has been "a fight every day," Sadik-Khan said.

Sometimes that fight called for some guerilla moves — or at least iterative actions and pilot projects to try out bold, new ideas. Chief among them are the new people places the city has created from what were once car spaces.

The most famous one is Times Square. Prohibiting cars on that section of Broadway between 42nd Street and 47th Street was met with strong opposition from the expected corners. But Sadik-Khan convinced Mayor Bloomberg to let her do it — even in an election year — and in 2009 they pushed ahead. NYC DOT blocked off the street with orange cones, tossed several hundred beach chairs onto the pavement, and Sadik-Khan crossed her fingers.

And people came — immediately — and they haven't left. The way they flocked to the city's "great new living room" and other plaza projects, like the one near Madison Square Garden, shows "how hungry people are for public space," she said.

In 2011, Bloomberg announced the change would become permanent. Why? Because it worked. The city measured its progress and found that safety benefits increased, with both pedestrian and driver injuries significantly lower. Travel times — measured by data from GPS-equipped taxis — dropped, too, and retail sales along the corridor went up 50 percent.

It proved, Sadik-Khan said, that "public space and traffic mobility is not a zero-sum game."

There have been other fights, too. Five years ago a protected on-street bike lane was installed on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, and it is still the subject of a lawsuit from local citizens who said it would change the historic character of the neighborhood and increase travel times, among other concerns.

But by most measures, Prospect Park West's bike lane is a success — it has spurred more bike travel, increased safety, and decreased automobile speeds on the roadway. It has also helped to encourage the creation of bike infrastructure all over the city, not to mention in other places.

Planners and others who try something bold and new can expect a struggle, but if your plans are good for people, it's worth it. "A city looking to do big things will have a push-pull relationship with community groups," Sadik-Khan said. "Backlash is a sign you're doing something right."

But the outcome of a such a fight is where it counts, and it's sometimes wonderfully unexpected. "When you change the street, you change the world," Sadik-Khan said.

About the Author

Meghan Stromberg is APA's editor in chief.

Top image: Times Square pedestrian plaza in New York. Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

September 20, 2016

By Meghan Stromberg