As local communities, what do we want our streets to become? 

Car-free Sunday in Copenhagen

Car-free Sunday in Copenhagen

A recent article in New York magazine asked "What is a city street? And what will it become?"

We believe these are important questions which should be explored in our local communities.

The streets belong to us, to all of us. It is where we meet and move into the collective. Our streets are filled with great potential and should be spaces for us to shape to meet our needs, for us to experiment and as communities express our individuality.

This week we went on a walking tour of the King's Cross area guided by urban planner and 'street activist' Gregory Cowan. Greg is a part of the local Living Streets Group which aims to make King's Cross more accessible for pedestrians, and to promote active travel. Living Streets is a UK-wide charity for everyday walking. They work - and have so since 1929 - towards safe, attractive and enjoyable streets, where people of all generations enjoy the benefits that this simple act of walking brings. 

In our laboratories, we need local activist from organisations like Living Streets to come together with the local community and imagine the future of their street, using art and facilitation to spark creativity and new ideas. 

Though in big cities like London, a majority of the streets we walk are polluted, congested and dangerous. Way too rarely do they become a canvas for our imagination. 

The question then becomes - how do we free more streets, more often for community expression? And primarily, streets that are clean and feel safe?

The New York Magazine article offers some suggestions, from the perspective of NYC. Here's an excerpt:

In recent years, New York, like other cities around the world, has started to rethink its streets, fitting them out with bike lanes, corner curb cuts, and free Wi-Fi stations. But we’re still catching up, trying to refine 20th-century priorities without satisfying present needs, let alone planning for future ones. We should start with a few basic principles:

Driverless vehicles are coming, so let’s get ready. Rather than wait for car manufacturers and software engineers to set the agenda, cities should determine what they want technology to accomplish, and how. For cities, the great promise of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, is that they can form an efficient, ubiquitous fleet of taxis that can be summoned by app, don’t need to cruise, and need never park on the street. (They will also force tens of thousands of drivers to search for new professions.) Part of that future is already with us, and we are not handling it well.

As app-based ride companies take over the streets, they jostle with plumbers’ vans, family cars, taxis, emergency vehicles, and so on, contributing to the streets’ sclerosis. Having given up the struggle to rein in Uber, New York could do what other cities already have: Designate protected lanes and entire streets for cabs and their equivalents. Hail-a-ride cars could plot separate itineraries, a privilege that riders would pay for with a small surcharge, and those routes could evolve into pathways for driverless cars.

Over time, cities can create separate channels for different kinds of AVs, like local delivery carts, shuttles, and long-haul trucks. Cities should coax manufacturers to design vehicles for the complexities of urban environments, instead of holding our streets hostage to whatever products the companies feel they can sell. All those outsize, anti-urban Suburbans and Explorers now muscling through Manhattan make clear how dangerous it is to mismatch vehicles with the streets they ply.

Pay to park; pay to drive. The debate over whether people should pay to drive into New York’s heavily trafficked core is still mired in bad faith and archaic models. Mayor de Blasio believes that imposing tolls on East River crossings would discriminate against residents of Brooklyn and Queens; Governor Cuomo is all for congestion pricing, although he doesn’t want East River tolls, either, and says he is studying other ways to draw the map. In any case, charging a fixed entry fee is hardly a perfect solution. Sure, some drivers would think twice before crossing the notional border, but others — Uber’s army of freelancers, say — would amortize the expense by sticking to Manhattan as long as they can, making traffic potentially worse.

Instead, we should be working toward a GPS-based system that puts a virtual taximeter in every vehicle and charges drivers for time spent and distance traveled in high-traffic hot spots in multiple boroughs, with fees varying according to time of day. You want to glide through midtown Manhattan at 4 a.m.? Knock yourself out. You plan to inch along Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn at rush hour? The city will put that on your E-Z Pass tab.

Streets foster health and movement, not sickness and fear. Walking and breathing shouldn’t be dangerous. In the course of a generation, the danger of being mugged, stabbed, or shot has abated, leaving New Yorkers free to crave unpolluted streets they can cross without being accidentally crushed. Promoting electric cars through tax incentives and charging stations would improve air quality. Even more important, we need to abandon the belief that every vehicle should have access to every address at any time.

Ever since Henry H. Bliss stepped off a streetcar on Central Park West in 1899 and was killed by a taxi, it’s been clear that when pedestrians share space with cars, they die on a regular basis. De Blasio’s Vision Zero program has made significant progress toward making those interactions safer. But pedestrians over 65 are hit at a disproportionately high rate, and the city’s aging population will only exacerbate the problem. Toll schemes may help reduce the number of vehicles in the city, but we can also do a more methodical job of separating cars from their potential victims.

All of these interventions have costs: short-term inconvenience, the pain of breaking habits, investing in new equipment. But think of the payoff: a city where kids can play in side streets, ambulances can respond efficiently to calls, the wheelchair-bound and visually impaired can navigate comfortably, and cycling is safe and appealing for people of all ages and genders. The effect of well-designed streets will be felt in three dimensions: good public spaces go hand in hand with better architecture, and streets that please pedestrians are good for storefront businesses, too.

In the 20th century, when vehicular traffic shaped urban design, optimizing streets was a process of constant trade-offs. A corner wide enough for a fire truck to maneuver is a terrifying one to cross with a stroller. Shortening drive times kills kids. Bus lanes crimp the flow of cars.

The future street, though, will cut through those tensions. Cutting cars, easing travel, weaving nature through the cityscape, promoting good health, crafting technology, and creating a more vibrant city — these goals all reinforce each other, and are all eminently within reach. Unless, of course, New Yorkers decide that they enjoy gridlock and fumes too much to give them up.

More here.