Turn Your City Into a Pedestrian Paradise

BlogHer Original Post

Pedestrian plaza on Broadway in New York

I have pedestrian plaza envy. Last week, I visited New York and saw the now 9-months-old pedestrian plazas on Broadway for the first time -- and was very tempted to move east.

While the new and improved Broadway isn't news to New Yorkers anymore, it is to the occasional visitor like myself -- and will be new to many Blogher '10 conference attendees who'll be in Manhattan this August. Far from the oppressively crowded sidewalks I remembered from previous years, New York's Broadway's gotten much more bike and pedestrian friendly -- and a lot more pleasant to hang out in, now that people actually have room to mill about, goof off, and even sit down on the conveniently provided chairs and benches. When I lived in New York, I'd be peeved at the tourists who'd come to a total standstill on the sidewalks and gawk at the sights (I had places to go!). Now, I actually had room to walk around them!

Broadway in New York

And the improvements aren't limited to the pedestrian plazas -- which were created by banning vehicles on Broadway from 47th to 42nd and 35th to 33rd. Many other blocks of Broadway got bigger sidewalks (or more accurately, regular roads painted over with green to mark them off as pedestrian-only zones) and nice bike paths, protected from moving cars by pedestrian zones to the left and parked cars to the right.

How did New York get looking so good? One big reason's Janette Sadik-Kahn, the Commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation, who I got to hear speak at Los Angeles' Street Summit conference just a few days before my trip to New York. Janette pointed out that the vast changes made to New York's streets -- from the bike lanes to pedestrian zones -- happened in just the last two and a half years -- after decades of inaction:

Since the 70s, we've had a lot of really great changes ... but the one thing that had not changed in those years was our streets! You could take a picture of our streets in 1975, and it would have looked virtually the same until a few years ago.

Janette said that the local advocacy community laid the foundation for the quick transformation of New York's streets -- and emphasized that other cities could quickly follow suit. After all, pedestrian and bike-friendly changes aren't just about human happiness -- though of course, that's important -- it's about human lives. New York city's data shows pedestrian injuries went down by 35 percent -- and that injuries to drivers and passengers went down 63 percent.

Pedestrian plaza on Broadway in New York

In her inspiring talk, Janette emphasized "the notion that streets are for people" and the need for "taking our streets back as public spaces" -- a message that resonates with many bloggers, in New York and beyond. Fellow Angeleno Sirinya Tritipeskul at Be a Green Commuter even rented a Zipcar (and e-solicited would-be carpoolers via her blog) to hear Janette speak at the Street Summit. Sirinya points to a Fast Company article, which quotes Janette connecting pedestrian-friendly streets to both eco-friendly living and "economic attractiveness":

Half a million people go through Times Square each day. It’s 90% pedestrians and 10% vehicles, yet 90% of the space has been allocated to vehicles.... These changes improve the flow of the city, better people’s health, and it’s also great for the environment. We’re not going to be able to maintain the quality of life and the economic attractiveness of world-class cities by continuing to jam more and more traffic and congestion through them.

Laura Walsh, a freelance journalist at Pittsburgh who blogs at Reimagine an Urban Paradise, applauded New York's decision to make these pedestrian zones permanent -- and hopes to see similar things happening across the U.S.:

I’ll repeat: If you build cities for cars, you get cars. If you build cities for people, you get people. New York did this and people love it. The rest of the country should begin following suit immediately.

Where do you want pedestrian-only spaces in your city? Mary Sit of Houston's Write on Metro blog asked her fellow city residents if they thought pedestrian-only spaces in Houston work. A few thoughtful commenters weighed in -- to rue the lack of comparable pedestrian traffic in Houston that would necessitate pedestrian-only spaces.

Of course, as one JamesL pointed out, pedestrian-friendly projects pose a bit of a chicken or the egg issue: "Houston is not currently struggling with too little sidewalk space for pedestrians. No wonder, since many areas like the rebuilt Kirby are horribly uninviting for peds." Even in New York, where there already were a lot of pedestrians, foot traffic grew by 11 percent in Times Square and by 6 percent in Herald Square once the pedestrian plazas were installed.

After hearing Janette's talk, I'm extra motivated to push for complete streets in the L.A. area (Yes, I was tempted to move to NYC, but fortunately(?) the weather was cold enough in the evenings that the temptation quietly left once I got back to Santa Monica and its 80 degree weather).

Hear Janette's inspiring talk at Streetsblog (audio only), and in the video above, hear her answer questions from Angelenos about how to be an effective citizen activist for complete streets in your neighborhood.

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BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at greenLAgirl.com.

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