When automobiles first appeared in New York, they quickly and decisively transformed the city into an early center of car culture. Sidewalks were narrowed to add lanes of traffic; crossing the street, once an improvised sport of dodge-the-wagon, was confined to corners and governed by lights. In the 1950s, the city converted miles of curbside space into free overnight parking for private vehicles.

Experts say it’s time to adapt again, this time to the reality that cars are too plentiful, too big, too polluting, and often too dangerous in such a crowded city.

New York and media outlet Curbed recruited a team of designers and consultants, led by the architecture firm WXY, to consider how to improve transportation and reduce traffic in NYC. They approached the streets as a matrix of overlapping, interrelated networks and tried to imagine what a comprehensive transformation would produce on a generic Manhattan block, to the extent that one exists.

They chose Third Avenue between East 33rd and 34th Streets due to its congestion and potholes. The group used an aerial photograph as a platform on which to overlay a possible future city, that is more livable, equitable and safer. They imagined a makeover that could happen now, given urgency and determination – rather than a far-fetched plan that sounds more like science fiction.

Their efforts yielded two big lessons. The first is that every improvement is a trade-off. Protecting bus lanes with concrete barriers, for example, keep cars out, but it also keeps limited-stop buses from passing local ones. The second is that even simple tweaks imply a far-reaching organizational overhaul. Enclosed trash bins would push the Department of Sanitation to update some of its trucks and pickup procedures. New regulations and speed limits mean enforcement, and thus money, manpower, and – most importantly – a sense of common purpose.

“This transformation is utopian only if the city’s incoming leaders surrender to inertia,” the article in Curbed noted. “Many of these proposals are radical only in New York. Other cities – even big chaotic ones, like Barcelona and Paris – update their streets without losing their identities or going broke. When it comes to quality of life in the public realm, New York’s attitude should be competitive, not fatalistic.”

Job One, they said, is to cut the number of private vehicles without letting the remaining drivers treat emptier streets like the open road, as they did during the Covid lockdown. They think congestion pricing would help, as well as more robust traffic enforcement.

They envision drastically scaling back free parking and transferring large chunks of public real estate from cars to pedestrians, bikes, and transit. Part of the goal is to reclaim the streets for the variety of uses that were once allowed to thrive there.

In addition to widening the Third Avenue sidewalk, they designated East 33rd Street as a pedestrian-priority street, accessible to local traffic (plus emergency vehicles and delivery trucks) but designed to make drivers feel like vaguely intrusive guests. In this vision, COVID-era “open streets” have evolved to become permanent and ubiquitous features of the cityscape.

Adaptation means layering the entire city with a weave of usable lanes – protected, well maintained, and clear of impediments – so that riders of all ages can get wherever they need to go, leisurely or in a hurry, expertly or hesitantly. The more welcoming the lanes, the more people use them, and the less hospitable they become to reckless drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter-riders.

Properly designed and protected, micromobility lanes can handle more traffic than vehicular lanes can, for the simple reason that bikes take up less space. Giving lanes on the avenue a slight bend would slow cars, create more ample sidewalks, and add a median for pickups and drop-offs, the group noted.

The group noted that the city has shied away from defining their red-painted bus lanes with medians or barriers, which means that buses must navigate around cabs picking up fares, cops taking a break, armored cars refilling ATMs, and anyone else who feels immune from cameras and fines.

The growth of online shopping and food delivery services dining have also added significantly to congestion in NYC in recent years. Trucks double- and triple-park – and in peak seasons, crews set up folding tables curbside to sort packages. But not every truck needs to be able to pull up in front of every address at any hour. The city can ration access to the curb and at the same time smooth the flow of goods. The city could force trucks to pull up to a reserved slot in a designated delivery zone and a squad of cargo bike stands could distribute goods across the neighborhood.

Climate change is, of course, another area that needs to be addressed, the group agreed. In normal weather, rain glides across waterproof asphalt and into a catch basin before flowing into a sewer. But in the coming years, city residents will have to cope with more wet assaults from air (like Hurricane Ida) or sea (like Sandy), causing the streets to become deadly. In massive downpours, the streets become flood accelerators, funneling water into depressions, swamping buses, and driving debris into drains and clogging them.

The city’s green infrastructure program has installed nearly 11,000 rain gardens in the last several years. Turbocharging that effort would entail making green infrastructure standard equipment. Swales, tree pits, and planted medians all soak up water and release it slowly, so it can be managed by the sewers. A low-traffic street can even be resurfaced with permeable pavers or porous asphalt, which allows water to seep through the surface into the ground, according to the group.

Source: Curbed