Manhattan and Brooklyn, NY
With the tulips and daffodils, cherry blossoms and bright green leaves unfurling from planters and tree pits these early spring weeks, brand new street furniture has also sprung up. Rows of Citi Bike docking stations are taking root along the curbs--and sometimes on sidewalks--of Manhattan's and Brooklyn's highest density neighborhoods. Watching this progress from my usual perch--Violeta's saddle--is a bit like watching two summers ago as DOT summarily exiled curb-parked automobiles, block-by-block, up First Avenue on Manhattan's East side. First there'd be some cones and a harmless looking DOT crew of two or so surveying the inside lane, then some spray paint... And before we knew it, a parking-protected green bike lane.
Citi Bike station, Barrow and Hudson Street, West Village. (Jen Petersen, 5/4/2013)
And like the green protected lanes, NYC Bikeshare is poised to transform how New Yorkers maneuver in the city's core. From what time we leave our homes to the neighborhoods we comfortably reach and with whom we travel en route, Citi Bike will multiply the possimobilites for those who make use of it. Crain's New York Business today reported on the anticipation in the business community, while the New York Post warned of the legal battles set to play out as neighbors who withheld comment from the 100s of community meetings where station/kiosk location suggestions were submitted and vetted, now step forward in protest.
Anytime you do anything systematic with streets, you change the way people access everything they connect. And given that New York City has the nation's lowest rate of car ownership per capita, serving the predominant scale of movement--the human scale--is a long-overdue systematic change. More people circulating on bikes instead of in cabs, on transit or private automobiles, means more slow-moving, money-spending people. And it also means more free-thinking people--people who are the engines behind the city's growing creative services and technology industries. And when they don't have to hunt for parking (car or bike) or tote their lock or swipe their metrocards again to fit in this or that errand or social event or productive meander, we can imagine that bikeshare will enable more people to do more things. And of course, each time a car doesn't start but a Citi Bike is instead undocked, the air we all breath gets a bit cleaner. And each additional bike on the street is an additional obstacle to slow speeding motorists.
But of course, prioritizing the human scale (as I've written about elsewhere--see especially Chapters 5 and 6), is also a zero-sum game. On streets that still preserve a lot of space for the automobile to park, bikeshare stations instead of parking spaces are the latest challengers to a whole bunch of comfy arrangements for those who can afford to own cars in the core--busy, powerful people used to having their way, place to park, pass to speed on the public's dime.
While many of my car owning friends love safe, walkable, *valuable* streets and don't expect that the streets serve their cars more than their bodies, other do, and don't see the conflict in their dueling desires. For empathy'sake, I've joined some of the latter group behind the windshield but it's not particularly illuminating. It seems that, when slowed up or ejected from easy curbside parking, they are hard-wired simply to react to the discomfort of their automomarginalization, and then pull at the strings they can reach. It's a class impulse, really. As when they sit stewing and cursing at the stupid motorists clogging their passage from Friday afternoon into a weekend at the Cape, they do not see themselves as part of the problem, nor with a choice about how to go, or the importance of demanding systematic investment in infrastructure to support higher quality of life transport. These have for so long enjoyed at-will access to distance--urban escapism--alongside the freshest fruits of density's offerings, that they imagine that this is the best possible scenario. But it isn't--in terms of their own health and the health of their neighborhoods, nor their creativity, nor the growth of their investments in NYC. Is there a way to gently challenge their thinking about what their tax dollars actually pay for in the public domain, and whether their cars are really worth defending among the possible recipients?
As New York's privately funded but publicly championed bikeshare network gets up and running, we have an opportunity to invite conflicted motorists into a new kind of circulation with themselves. My goal this spring is to find and make friends, and then ride with at least 2 such motorists, to get them meditating on their own mortality and the ways riding lower and slower in the saddle is worth their support--even at the cost of their car's free ride.
NYCDOT and Alta Bike Share, Citi Bike's operator, have chosen to launch bikeshare from core neighborhoods where cycling is already popular and will have the strongest chance of widespread adoption. And to those neighbors in the West Village and Brooklyn Heights already spending money to shoo Citi Bike stations from their blocks, I say: Let them be left behind. I hope that if after a few months of monitoring NYCDOT discovers under-utilized stations, they will relocate them to areas of highest demand and highest need. I'd start with all of South Brooklyn--Red Hook to Park Slope and Bay Ridge to Sheepshead Bay--plus Long Island City to Jackson Heights, Queens. In its next iteration, bike share will be a way to meaningfully incorporate transit-poor low income communities into new, human scaled growth and the economic and physical health that it can support. If wealthy motorists don't want these conditions sustained in their own neighborhoods, let them have car parking lots.
Door of a roofless warehouse in North Corktown.
In the last couple weeks of my Fall/Winter sojourn to the City formerly known as "Motor," I began a conversation with an executive on the City side of the Detroit Works Project (DWP), the city's privately-funded strategic planning process underway since 2010. We talked about how to take the findings of the as-yet unreleased report--to their next stage of experimental implementation in support of resilient growth. The work of mainly outside consultants overseen by Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) and the DWP Steering Committee, when released in January the report will suggest routes to growth informed by the City's assets and liabilities (as reported from a series of community "listening" forums, a comprehensive inventory of taxable lands, and the state of social institutions and infrastructure needed to stitch it all together). "What an exciting time in Detroit!" was my general response as I listened to and later read about what could come next.
The DEGC VP who shared all of this with me asked that I put together a plan for segueing from report findings to pilot implementation, as part of my application for a longer-term role in the new "skunkworks" -type office that would organize and lead these pilots. I gladly obliged, drawing on what knowledge I'd gained by closely studying, writing about, and helping formulate infrastructure pilot projects in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I distilled the lessons in a preamble on the nature of pilot projects, a reflection worth reproducing here:
"First, successful pilot projects put something good in the ground fast, rapidly disrupting a status quo that isn’t yielding good results. They are not business as usual. They shouldn’t be perfect or very expensive, or require extravagant administrative apparatuses to prop them up—they should be NOW. A private sector tool, they are born of contexts where product improvement is driven by a profit imperative, and where managers and staff are held accountable to demonstrate possible roads to [usually] single column, bottom line growth. Pilot projects do not often interact in the general market—either for procurement or sales. Good pilots know what outcomes they mean to spur and what they’re trying to test, but are also patient, holding aside deep evaluation and fine-tuning for a specified time, when adequate data has been gathered and analyzed.
"When centrally led in cities, the speed and boundary blurring required to accomplish them can grate against existing departments’ processes. But if you take up and defend them for what good they will accomplish for a city, the same grating is a major source of their magic. Still, some obvious adjustments are required for context suitability. For instance, rather than a single (financial) bottom line imperative, municipal pilot projects should be informed by social, environmental, and fiscal health indicators. Accordingly, when setting up pilot projects that would aim for “healthier” outcomes, we set goals from all three categories, and evaluate their progress along each. Secondly, in cities we have to grapple a little differently with what it means and costs to “disrupt the status quo,” because we’re usually carrying a lot of overhead to reproduce it (see union-protected job descriptions, long-term procurement contracts, complacency, etc.). And so, pilot projects in the public sector can be met with resistance by people who are afraid of losing something they value—their sense of place even—if change happens NOW. Sadly, resistance can form even when many agree that change is needed. In our case of abundant, verifiable evidence that the status quo isn’t working, attempts to forge bold new ways shouldn’t encounter protests they can’t quiet with the resonant and simple: “We’re trying to build a resilient Detroit, for the future,” moral high ground-type response. But in the demonstration period we also need to plot steps—chiefly in staffing, procurement, and constituency engagement—to protect experiments from such pitfalls. Sometimes this means finding meaningful roles for would-be resistors, bringing them into the heart of the process. Finally, and related, in the absence of profit-sharing as a motivator for innovation, project leadership should have a previously-demonstrated commitment to pioneering, demonstrating, and/or defending innovative city-fixing strategies. And accordingly, they should have acolytes/fans/a chorus of followers. Each project should have a likable personality, create buzz, be as closely watched as petri dishes in a 2nd grade science project. Seriously!"
Pedaling down Second Avenue through Manhattan's East Village on a recent sweltering Sunday afternoon, I spotted this couple, lounging drowsily against a tree on someone's curb cast-away couch cushions. I quickly veered off to cheer their spontaneous appropriation of refuse/space, requesting to snap a photo. Christina and her boyfriend agreed, and I took down her email address, to send it along later.
The couple's quick fix for a quintessential human need--for seating and shade to recover from heat island effected-summer conditions--was whimsical. But it was also powerful and prescient. It demonstrated how simply a tree may become a backrest, trash may become seating, human bodies made to buffer passing ped traffic on one side from much quicker-moving bicycle traffic on the other. Surely Second Avenue could use more sidewalk seating for weary butts. And given the growing volume of bicycle traffic coaxed by the Avenue's southbound protected bike lane, perhaps built-in treeskirt seats could serve a peacekeeping function between sidewalk and bicycle traffic.
I'd wager a bet that if all the treepits on Second had rectangular benches built around them, with gaps of no more than a couple feet from one bench's end to its neighbor's beginning, mid-block pedestrian street crossings would significantly decrease. Less likely to startle and so [by extension] to anger each other, treeskirt benches could direct pedestrian crossing to where it's safest on these elaborately-carved streetscapes of (from left to right): sidewalk-->protected bike lane-->floating parking/turn lane-->moving car lanes-->bus-only lane-->sidewalk.
Maybe a pilot project funded by a few blocks' worth of Second Avenue restauranteurs could provide some preliminary data on the possimobilities?
Lean against a tree. You never know what gap-filling solution might fall from it...
I'm launching a new blog with this new website, which I'm calling "Mining the Gap." My personal and vocational preoccupations are generally about bridging--words and actions, past and future, old wineskins with new wine (so to speak). And I find there is a lot of good matter to mine in the filler--tensions/conflicts/sweetness and light. Some of what I post will be achingly practical, some of it more philosophical, but hopefully none of it boring. I'll probably sound board some of the wilder ideas entertaining me in the last few years, too: the power of demonstration, possimobilities, propportunities, and so forth. I hope you'll follow along, offer comments, critiques, congrats.
be the city you wish to see. ask me how!