Walking in New York is one of the great empowering privileges of living here — without money, gear or skill, a New Yorker can still get somewhere, autonomous and unencumbered. But along with that freedom comes inevitable risk. Longo was one of around 12,000 New York City pedestrians who were injured in traffic accidents in 2013, a statistic that has stayed fairly constant over the last five years. In 2014, the first year in which Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented Vision Zero, a plan to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero, 138 pedestrians died in traffic accidents. That was down from a five-year high of 182 deaths in 2013.
In pursuing Vision Zero, New York is embracing a relatively new approach to cities, one with a focus on walkers over drivers. Most city planners now see the era of the car’s urban supremacy as a brief, misguided phase in city culture. Rather than competing with suburbs, cities are capitalizing on their own traditional strengths, recognizing pedestrians as arguably their most economically invigorating (not to mention energy-efficient) form of traffic. In New York, the city’s Department of Transportation has been re-examining and redesigning hundreds of intersections like the one where Longo was struck, trying to find the best answers to questions that went unasked for decades: What do pedestrians want? What’s the best way to protect them? And where do they want to go?
For much of the 20th century, when the engineers running urban transit authorities thought about traffic, they thought less about the pedestrian experience and more about saving money, by saving time, by speeding movement, by enabling cars. They analyzed traffic flow, the backup of cars, stoplight times and right- and left-hand turns, all in an effort to keep vehicles moving freely and quickly through the city. They ran the data through a program that would spit out a rating (A to F) for the “level of service.” An A meant that a street was congestion-free, which gave cars the potential to speed; an F meant that it was too congested to be functional. The grade considered ideal for most streets in New York was a C.
The value of speed, for car commuters, was an easy equation for engineers. “The assumption is that all travel time is a waste of time,” says Zhan Guo, a professor of urban planning and transportation at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “But that rationale doesn’t apply to pedestrians.” The worth of the pedestrian experience, so pokey, so subjective, was scarcely considered, partly because it was hard to quantify.
15 minutes of video from an intersection in Amsterdam. Cars, pedestrians and cyclists all treated as equal with speeds that are designed for a human and not a car scale.
If you aren’t a traffic engineer or an urban planner, the word woonerf probably looks like a typo, or maybe the Twitter handle of whoever runs marketing for Nerf (woo!). But you might want to get familiar with the term—Dutch for “living street”—because the urban design concepts it embraces are on the rise.
A woonerf is a street or square where cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and other local residents travel together without traditional safety infrastructure to guide them. Also sometimes called a “shared street,” a woonerf is generally free of traffic lights, stop signs, curbs, painted lines, and the like. The basic idea is that once these controls are stripped away, everyone is forced to become more alert and ultimately more cooperative. Through less restraint comes greater focus.
The decades-old vision is not without its critics. Skeptics wonder if drivers feel too much ownership of the road to adapt their ways, or if shared streets can work fine for smaller towns but not in big urban centers, or if removing oversight is naïve at a time when people won’t even stop texting to drive. Then there’s the general critique pointed out by Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt in a 2008 article about shared streets: “people do act like idiots.”
All fair points (especially the last). Butwoonerf supporters can point to the success of shared streets projects in Europe as well as their gradual adoption inother parts of the world—including major cities in the auto-centric United States. Construction of Chicago’s first shared street, for instance, is expected to begin this spring.
I know this ship has sailed but Victoria Avenue with a pedestrian bridge would have been ideal for this. So would parts of 20th Street.