New York City measures what it wants to improve: improve: more pedestrians, more cyclists, fewer injuries, less speeding, better business. Hamilton measures service level for drivers and calls it a day.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 13, 2013
While Hamilton streets remain firmly entrenched in the mid-20th century values of separation and automobile flow, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has released a groundbreaking report called Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets (PDF).
As the saying goes, you can't manage it if you don't measure it, and NYCDOT measures its street designs based on the outcomes it hopes to produce: safety for all users, traffic volumes for all users, optimum speed (not too slow or too fast), economic vitality, user satisfaction and environmental/public health benefits.
The report states:
Cities need to set new goals for their streets if they are to meet the needs of a dynamic and growing city and address the problems of vehicle crashes, traffic congestion, poor-performing bus and bike networks, and environments that are inhospitable for pedestrians.
What NYCDOT has learned is that complete streets perform better on a variety of measures than automobile-centric streets.
Protected bicycle lane on 8th and 8th Avenues, NYC (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
After protected bike lanes were installed on 8th and 8th Avenues, the city observed the following:
This pattern is pretty consistent: protected bike lanes are great for local streetfront business - assuming the city leadership cares enough about local streetfront businesses to invest in economic infrastructure that supports them.
Pedestrian plaza, protected bike lanes at Union Square North (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
After a new pedestrian plaza and a protected bike path were installed in Union Square North, Manhattan, the city observed the following:
NYCDOT does a lot of pilot projects. This allows them to try and iterate innovative ideas at a relatively low risk. It also allows people to experience those ideas before reflexively opposing them.
Parking to Plazas in Brooklyn and Manhattan (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
Projects to turn parking into plaza seating on Pearl Street in Brooklyn and Manhattan yielded the following:
Can you imagine Hamilton measuring the number of pedestrians sitting on our public streets, let alone removing parking to make room for them?
It took several years of planning, budget cuts and delays before the City tried a pilot project to turn the south leg of the Gore into a pedestrian plaza last summer. It was a great success at attracting people to take or buy their lunch in Gore Park, but as soon as the pilot was over the bollards were removed and the south leg was turned back into curbside parking.
Traffic calming on East 180th Street, Bronx (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
After traffic calming on East 180th Street in the Bronx, the city observed the following:
Of course, Hamilton focuses on speeding traffic and pedestrian injuries from time to time, but only in the context of police enforcement. We don't measure safety in terms of designing our streets to accommodate a variety of legitimate users.
Dedicated bus and bike lanes on First and Second Avenues (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
After installing dedicated bus and bike lanes on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, the city observed:
Hamilton has a goal of doubling transit ridership by 2020 but we've done just about nothing to achieve that goal in the past several years. Council is considering dedicated transit lanes for the east-west B-Line, but we can expect lots of hand-wringing and agonizing, despite the fact that these streets have significant excess lane capacity.
Bike lanes on Main and King are off the table entirely, even though the whole point of bike lanes is to make it viable to use a bike for transportation. (Several councillors seem to think off-street trails are good enough, which is like saying drivers who want more lane capacity should go to Cayuga Speedway and drive around the track.)
Variable parking rates in Park Slope, Brooklyn (Image Credit: NYCDOT)
Back in 2005, UCLA economist Donald Shoup demonstrated in his landmark book The High Cost of Free Parking that the most effective way to provide parking is with variable pricing based on time of day, optimized to maintain around 15% vacancy.
NYC tried this in Park Slope and observed the following:
Meanwhile, in Hamilton we're actually busy ripping out parking meters in response to the outcry from drivers who expect "free" parking (i.e. someone else has to pay for it).
These are just a few examples from the report of how New York City is redesigning its streets to reflect a more inclusive concept of what a street is for and whose needs it should serve. They measure what they want to improve: more pedestrians, more cyclists, fewer injuries, less speeding, better business.
In Hamilton, we continue to measure our street designs almost exclusively on service level for motorists. If a driver has to wait behind a red light, that's a big problem, and it's enough to disqualify any measure that might reduce lane capacity or vehicle speed.
But if a pedestrian has to detour half a kilometre or more out of the way just to cross the street, we don't measure that so it doesn't trigger any policy actions.
Indeed, the de facto policy of the traffic department has consistently been to oppose any change to the street design that might interfere with the smooth, fast, unimpeded flow of automobile traffic.
We don't value the volume of pedestrians or cyclists, so we don't measure how our street designs affect those volumes and we certainly don't aim for policy targets of increasing those numbers.
Likewise, we don't value the vitality of streetfront retail, despite over five decades of continuous evidence that car-dependent streets kill those businesses. We don't care that business owners on our fast, one-way thoroughfares have been complaining since the 1950s that the streets scare customers away.
We care about the vitality of big box stores on suburban greenfields with vast asphalt lots of "free" parking around them, but we don't care about walkable neighbourhood businesses. Indeed, we punish those businesses by imposing ludicrous parking requirements on them that make no sense in an urban built environment.
Our master plans theoretically aim to reduce overall traffic volumes and get more people walking and cycling, but we refuse to do anything that will actually work toward achieving that goal.
Change is a football our traffic engineers, senior managers and Councillors perpetually kick down the field so someone else can deal with them. Yet when someone else does try to deal with them, the same people who refuse to follow their own plans react with belligerence and threats.
City workers remove guerilla bumpouts at Locke and Herkimer (Image Credit: Jeffrey Neven)
It turns out that the tactical urbanists making incremental, iterative changes to their built environment are doing exactly what successful cities do to improve their public space - and what Hamilton would be doing if it was really committed to fulfilling the words-on-paper that are supposed to be its guiding principles.
If the only thing we bother to measure is service level for motorists, we will never be able to achieve real improvements in how our streets serve our residents.
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