New York City Musings

Author: Roger Bardsley, AICP

I recently returned from New York City (on 9/11 actually) after an enjoyable four-day visit.  I assume that most of you have been to the “Big Apple” which is certainly one of the distinctive cities in the U.S.  After being there I decided to write a blog about space.  I am doing my dissertation research on grid-form cities and may need to bore you with geek stuff before we continue.

Manhattan was developed according to the plan of 1811 that laid out its familiar grid pattern.  The south end of the city was previously laid out by the Dutch and is not rectilinear.  At that time, as was true as other cities in the U.S. developed, there were three “spaces”, the street, the sidewalk and private property.  The buildings generally started right behind the sidewalk, so there was no front setback, and the public/private line was clearly delineated.  This is important – these spaces have essentially not changed since 1811.

What has changed is the allocation of space.  Between 1811 and perhaps 1910, the street belonged to horses and horse-drawn vehicles (the horse poop space) while the sidewalks were for pedestrians.  Speed was not as much of an issue then as it is today.  Buggies travel at about 5 mph, which is higher than walking speed, but still not difficult to avoid.  By 1910 motor vehicles began to appear in numbers and created, at the time, significant issues.  Motor vehicles were a bit faster than horses and were made of steel so that an impact with one could cause injury or death.

I am going to simplify the issue a bit.  There were horse-drawn trolleys and then electric trolleys in the horse-poop space, as well as motor vehicles.  There were conflicts and eventually the motor vehicles won.  I am going to feature the Brooklyn Bridge below, where the trolleys ceased running in 1950.

The concept I want to introduce is allocation and mis-allocation of space.  The amount of space available to vehicles and pedestrians has not changed since Manhattan was developed in the 19th century.  If you walk the streets of Manhattan today you can feel the palpable tension among pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.  This is the tension that Janette Sadik-Kahn must have felt when she was traffic commissioner for Michael Bloomberg between 2007 and 2013.  Janette, who is my hero, took parts of Times Square and Herald Square and made them pedestrian spaces as well as adding 400 miles of bike lanes.  And she helped create the Citi-bike share program that lets people rent bikes throughout the city.  She did this by taking a small amount of the fixed space that had been for vehicles and allocated it to pedestrians and bicycles.  There was an outcry, of course, but the changes have stuck.

The Brooklyn Bridge was the first of New York’s long span bridges and was constructed between 1869 and 1883.  It was designed to supplement the ferry system that brought people from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan to work.  The bridge was free to pedestrians and cost a small amount if you rode the trolley that was added to the middle of the deck.  In 1889 the bridge carried 34 million people.  The trollies ceased operation in 1950 and all of the deck was given over to motor vehicles.  Later, a suspended walkway was added above the deck for pedestrians and cyclists.  Today it is a popular tourist activity to walk across the bridge.  When I did it on a warm Saturday in September it was crowded and the few people who were trying to bike were having a difficult time.  Traffic on the bridge deck was congested, and the suspended walkway was carrying far more people than the road.  To me it was good example of mis-allocation of space.  If the two outside lanes of the bridge were reserved for bicycles they could fly across the bridge unhindered by pedestrians, and the suspended walkway could be reserved entirely for people on foot.  The loss of two lanes of traffic might make congestion worse, but since almost all the surface streets in Manhattan are congested most of the time, it might not make much of a difference.  And, the bridge would carry more people in total than it does today.

The Brooklyn Bridge was only one example of mis-allocation that I saw.  Something that happens hundreds of time each day is when a vehicle tries to turn left or right across a cross-walk that is filled with pedestrians.  The driver will inch into the crowd bit by bit until he or she can make the turn.  It is most comical when you see one person in a large SUV trying to intimidate the 25-30 people in the cross-walk.

Don’t get me wrong – I love New York in part because there are so many people vying to move or make a living in a fixed amount of space.  It was simply a realization that the allocation of space has perhaps not been comprehensively reviewed and adjusted as it has in many European cities (e.g. Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London).