» The fact that street space is about more than just automobile movement has yet to be recognized by a big swath of the population.
The recent furor over the installation of bike lanes along Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West is indicative of the myopic perspective too many people continue to hold on to in regards to the use of the most basic transportation resource, the street.
Even in a city as progressive and transit-friendly as New York, the work of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan to reapportion a very limited portion of total street space to pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses — usually in areas where people in automobiles are outnumbered — have been greeted by lawsuits and calls for the commissioner to resign.
The absurdity of these efforts is difficult to comprehend. Already, the majority of public space in this country is devoted to the circulation of automobiles. Is the integration of a few complete streets in a network of usually single-use roads so tough to accept?
Try taking a toy away from a child and telling her that — after years of playing alone — from now on she must share. That, in effect, is how automobilists must feel about their precious rights-of-way. Convinced of the importance of driving from place to place, they cannot imagine a world in which the street’s purpose is broadened to include fulfilling the needs of people relying on other vehicles. Who cares about the inefficiency of the fact that they hog the street all day and night? What difference does it make if other transportation modes are pushed away or greatly inconvenienced? The street, after all, is designed for the car.
This attitude must be fought. People who live in dense parts of cities like New York, or Boston, or San Francisco are pedestrians at heart. Their residents face the sidewalk and they rely on neighborhood stores for their daily needs. And yet too often they suffer the daily indignity of the poorly designed street. As automobiles pass in every direction, they are confined to sidewalks often too small and a dearth of public space. When they hop on their bikes, hoping to extend their trips, they are caught between fast-moving and dangerous cars, despite their pollution-free form of travel. When they get on the bus, they are stuck in congestion despite the fact that they take up far less of the overall travel corridor than their driving peers.
These are the problems that policies like those that have been implemented in New York are attempting to address.
For those reading this article, these points are likely more than obvious, and yet it is clear that the motivation for opening our streets to users other than those stuck behind the wheels of their private vehicles remains murky for a significant percentage of the population. Even in New York, where most people have corner stores to which to walk and transit lines on which to ride, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are desperately convinced that if you were to remove a car lane and replace it with something else like a pedestrian plaza or a bike lane, chaos would result: Congestion would overtake the streets.
The removal of automobile traffic from parts of Manhattan’s Broadway including Times Square has been delightfully trouble-free.
Compounding this problem is the fact that people who drive, despite often constituting a small percentage of overall users, frequently command a high degree of influence thanks to their greater wealth, which allows them not only to drive but also to pay lawyers able to sue transportation commissioners for doing their jobs well.
All this hoopla, however, may be just a predictable slowdown in what is inevitably a slow process. It may be obvious to some that bike and bus lanes are beneficial, but many will remain attached to their automobiles and fight any attempt to reduce their dominance for years to come. There is opposition to these improvements today, but there will be less of it as more and more people experience the benefits of good biking facilities, effective bus service, and comfortable pedestrian street space.
Image above: Mock up of a contraflow bus
bike lane, from Boston Complete Streets