Transforming the city’s streets … for everyone

Is Jim Garges, Mecklenburg County’s normally ebullient director of parks and recreation, fretting right now? He might be, and for much the same reasons that Janette Sadik-Khan worried eight years ago as commissioner of the massive New York City Department of Transportation.

For Sadik-Khan, the summer of 2008 was when her staff decided to gamble. The idea was to close several miles of Manhattan streets to vehicular traffic while at the same time opening them to everyone else. Runners, skate boarders, Zumba dancers, cyclists, acrobats and pram-pushers (just about anyone aged 8 or even 80) were granted the right of access—just for the fun of it. They wanted try this out for three consecutive Saturday mornings and see what would happen. But Sadik-Khan was anxious. She wanted a quick win for her car-free experiment.

“I remember … before it opened, being out on the streets with my team and … thinking, ‘What if no one shows up? What if this is a disaster?’ ” she reflects in her new book, coauthored with Seth Solomonow, Street Fight, Handbook for an Urban Revolution. “.… It turned out New Yorkers knew exactly what to do. … We had 300,000 people coming to play, and cha cha, and take basketball lessons.”

Although Street Fight mostly chronicles the New York experience, her spirited account has relevance to Charlotte or any other city fraught by the tension between the prevailing auto-addicted culture and counter-pressure from a growing chorus of voices determined to restore balance to the transportation system.

The open streets concept is hardly an invention of New York City’s DOT. It originated in 1974 in Bogotá, Colombia, attracting a stunning two million city residents at the outset. It has since become a big hit globally, coming as close to Charlotte as Atlanta and Durham. The Queen City’s first big chance for an open streets event, “Open Streets 704” (as in the area code), comes this weekend—Sunday, May 1. As Garges outlined to me over coffee in early March, the game plan is to hold a pair of 704 events this year and another couplet in spring and fall of 2017. After 2017, he has high hopes that it will become permanent.

Street Fight argues convincingly that when leadership is bound to the task, dramatic changes to a street system can be achieved in a remarkably short time. And it really did happen in a city where in-your-face confrontation is a way of life. “Every inch of pavement reclaimed from drivers has been a fight,” she says.

Her boss and close ally, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, believed bold moves were possible for any of his city agencies, provided they could be justified by the metrics. When street changes were proposed, the numbers had to work: traffic flow, retail trade and travel safety could not be sacrificed. And NYC DOT was not afraid to experiment. If a pilot project didn’t work as planned, they scrapped it at little or no financial risk. The most radical example, the redesign of Times Square, proceeded incrementally over a period of years, increasing the budget at each interval, all in concert with a careful monitoring and evaluation process.

A station of New York’s bikeshare program in lower Manhattan sits next to a green-painted bike lane protected from traffic. Photo: Martin Zimmerman

Another of Sadik-Khan’s major victories, one of immediate relevance to the Charlotte scene, is described in the chapter titled “How to Read the Street”. Here, she writes about the importance of scripting a new design vocabulary to reflect context sensitive objectives. For her staff engineers and planners, that meant replacing the AASHTO green book, which has traditionally been heavily biased towards a suburban perspective, with the Urban Street Design Guide, a newly published product of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). The switch to NACTO is one of many reasons protected bike lanes have become common in New York City; by 2014 NYC DOT had succeeded in adding 40 miles of such lanes to its inventory, and more are on the drawing boards.

Charlotte has scored some notable successes of its own, especially with its numerous road diet projects and the smooth launch of the B-Cycle bike sharing program (New York’s Citi Bike barely avoided a bankruptcy, partly due to collateral damage from Hurricane Sandy). But Charlotte has yet to embark on an updating its own Urban Street Design Guidelines whose adoption by City Council in 2007 preceded NACTO. To what extent the upcoming draft of the Transportation Action Plan addresses the needed update remains to be seen.

Sadik-Khan ruffled feathers in the rush for street reform, but she never let up. By the time she left her post in 2013, NYC DOT had added an astounding 400 miles of bicycle lanes and 60 pedestrian plazas, an achievement that prompted renowned Copenhagen-based streetscape architect Jan Gehl to boast that “it has taken less than seven years for New York to accomplish what Copenhagen did in thirty.”

I toured a good chunk of Manhattan by foot and bicycle in early 2014, and I don’t think Gehl’s observation was that far off the mark.

In Charlotte, the projections for updating the Transportation Acton Plan that CDOT staff proposed to the City Council transportation and planning committee earlier this month envision a timeline more than three times longer (25 years) to hit a 450-mile benchmark for bikeways.

If there were only one take-away from this book, it would be that the public should not have to wait decades to experience a realignment of the transportation universe. If the most contentious city in America can pull it off, any city can. And should you hanker for a quick read on curb-to-curb battle tactics and what it takes to be a winner, read Street Fight cover-to-cover.

Opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.