Alternative Living, Design

Street Fight: Lessons Learned from NYC’s Urban Revolution

“The fault is not in our cyclists, but in our streets. A century of bad design has left us with streets built for cars, trucks, and buses. They serve everyone, but no one well.” -Janette Sadik-Khan

A few weeks ago I finished the book “Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.” It’s written by Janette Sadik-Khan, the ex-Commissioner of Transportation in New York City.

Under the wing of the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she comprehensively and rapidly (especially by slow government standards) transformed the way everyone got around in the Big Apple by wrestling streets away from cars and returning them back to the people.

She’s like a modern, bureaucratic, transportation Robin Hood.

I would highly suggest checking it out (like literally, from a library). But if you want my 2-minute version here are a few some big realizations I got out of the book, with a dash of my personal two cents thrown in.

1. More roads = equally more traffic

“Trying to address congestion by building more traffic lanes is like trying to prevent obesity by loosening one’s belt.”

“Thousands of road building and widening projects have resulted in more roads and more lanes, but no less traffic.”

Despite countless expensive efforts all over the world: road expansion doesn’t work. Several years ago in L.A. they forked out truckloads of taxpayer money to build an extra lane on the infamous Interstate 405. And what happened? Traffic didn’t improve. In fact it apparently got slightly worse.

While not intuitive at first, it does make sense: if you build it, they will come. In other words, if you make driving that much easier, all you get that many more drivers for whom it suddenly becomes easier to drive, or live in a drive-centric location, rather than take an alternate choice or live centrally. They call this ‘induced demand.’

Research at the University of Toronto compared historical stats of heavy road building cities to those who didn’t build any major roads. The result showed not just a correlation, but an exact match: for every 1 mile of new road built, vehicle miles traveled increased by 1 mile.

2. Cars are a crazy inefficient use of road real estate

“In Flushing, Queens, pedestrians outnumber car passengers 2-1 but pedestrians have less than a third of the street space.”

The obvious issue is that cars are just an insanely inefficient means of moving a lot of people, and they take up a whopping amount of road space.

Here’s a couple pictures that say 1,000 words.

The image shows 200 people in each mode of transportation. And I’d say it’s being pretty generous with 1.5 people per car.
The unequal distribution of road real estate

 3. Jaywalking was invented by drivers

“Drivers see the streets as territory granted to them, with stop lights, crosswalks and cyclists interrupting their path”

Jaywalking was dubiously invented and successfully lobbied by automobile industry.

Whyte avenue, Edmonton, Alberta.

I remember getting a jaywalking ticket on Whyte Avenue, easily the most walked street in Edmonton, Canada. To this day one of my favorite streets- it’s chalk full for several blocks of shops, bars and restaurants. I would LOVE to one day see the city take a bold move and fully convert this stretch of street to pedestrian and bikes only, at least in the summer.

Picture it: what used to be road space could be converted to park and seating space, and a massive dynamic venue for entertainment and arts (which Edmonton is a renowned city for). Shops and bars could extend their reach through patios, parklettes and booths right in the street. And jaywalking? All but eliminated.

4. There’s always a big uproar of resistance, then everything is fine

Every city around the world that’s trying to implement more bike lanes is probably experiencing resistance in one form or another, in what some call ‘the war on cars.’ But as we said before, adding more roadways doesn’t reduce traffic. So what does? Providing alternative transportation options.

If Janette is anything in real life like she is in her book, I would not want to get in her way; she means serious business. Not many political figures have the figurative kahunas to paint bike paths over existing car lanes, remove parking spaces to be replaced with restaurant patios or bike sharing stations, or closing entire swaths of streets to vehicles (the most notable of course being Times Square) and converting it to pedestrian plazas.

There was opposition to bike lanes for example: ‘We’re not Amsterdam,’ they said. ‘Bike lanes worked great in Europe, but this is New York,’ they said. It’s the land of honking horns, bustling traffic and the signature yellow taxi.

But when all was said and done, people loved it (mostly). Business associations once vehemently opposed became vocally supportive. New Yorkers came out in droves by foot and two wheels. It all worked out, time and time again. And the cold, hard data proved it: motorist and pedestrian injuries decreased, pollution levels dropped, and local business vacancy rates decreased by 50% in certain areas.

They even studied taxi GPS trip data and found out that driving trip times got shorter after closing certain road sections!

5. Widening roads makes them more dangerous

Widening roads actually makes them more dangerous. It’s counter-intuitive at first, but it makes sense when you think about it: people drive faster and take more risks when the perceived danger or proximity to other drivers is low, say on very wide lanes. But if you make lanes narrower, cars perceive more risk and drive slower.

6. Car accidents have become way too commonplace

In fact, motor vehicle accidents are so common, that to introduce live-saving measures such as traffic calming, reduced speed limits, or reduced or narrower car lanes to add bike lanes or pedestrian paths, is an insulting proposition to many.

In the book, Janette describes push-back she received when putting in bike lanes; critics said it would negatively impact the neighbourhood’s heritage and character. It was if 12 deaths from motor vehicle / bike and pedestrian collisions the previous year on that block alone wasn’t reason enough to do something about it!

7. Bike lanes cost very little, relatively speaking

The final issue is the cost: New York City invested $8 million over 3 years to create the nation’s best bike lanes. That seems like a lot, but for perspective, that same year they spent $508 million to paint the Brooklyn Bridge and rehabilitate the approaches, and $612 million to replace the small Willis Avenue bridge. It’s pennies in the big scheme of things, but results in safer streets and more active, healthier transportation alternatives.

She repeatedly says that paint, dividers and plastic stanchions can go a long way to changing the dynamic of a street.


If you liked this book and want to continue your mixed-use transportation-nerd out quest, check out Happy City by Charles Montgomery (a local Vancouverite).

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