Reflections on Summer Streets
The big news in Chicago transit this week, of course, is the Metropolitan Planning Council’s release of a report for Chicago Bus Rapid Transit. I definitely recommend checking out the actual report, which goes into detail about the selection of the routes, including the metrics they used to choose the routes in question. Other good coverage.
Yesterday was the last of New York’s Summer Streets effort, in which Park Avenue/Fourth Avenue from 71st St to 9th St and then Lafayette St from 9th to the Brooklyn Bridge are closed to vehicles and open to pedestrians and cyclists from 7 am to 1 pm on three consecutive Saturdays; I was able to experience this when I was there a week ago.
It’s initially disconcerting to rise onto the street and have it be much quieter than usual, exhaust pipes and the honking of cars being part of my personal New York soundtrack. But it’s a sheer reminder of the amount of space, even in Manhattan, that are given over to roads. Cars are large, particularly in terms of their terminal parking capacity, and seeing cyclists and pedestrians taking up a relatively small proportion of the street space is a refreshing experience. It’s a good reminder that our streets aren’t always exclusively the province of cars.
However, I was able to see the “flip side,” so to speak, immediately after. The reason I was at Summer Streets in the first place was because I was helping a friend move Craiglist-purchased furniture from Astor Place, approximately at 8th and Lafayette, to the Upper East Side. She’d hired a driver and van for the move, who proceeded to weave and careen wildly northward — trust me, this is not an understatement — through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons.
Stymied by the closed streets for Summer Streets, the driver proceeded to treat us to some choice New York-style invective, with the objects of his wrath including cyclists, the city, Mayor Bloomberg, other drivers and us; the main issue being that he was unable to cut crosstown from Sixth Ave to First Ave because of the streets. (I don’t know if the entire city and Bloomberg should be the target of his anger, but I digress.) As I mused whether I’d make it uptown alive, I had two thoughts.
First, in any sort of urban situation, wayfaring signage and communication is immensely important. (Slate once explained why signage at New York’s Penn Station is so confusing: it boils down to the fact that there are three separate, non-well-integrated systems in use.) In essence, Summer Streets is a “service disruption” for Manhattan city streets à la infamous subway service changes. Just as straphangers are bamboozled by trains veering off track, it’s the same situation for drivers. We actually even stopped to ask a policeman where we could cut crosstown, but of course when we arrived at the intersection there was no way through. I was a bit preoccupied with watching the Manhattan scenery fly by, but I didn’t seem to notice much signage about where to cross crosstown.
Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile just explored why urbanists detest Megabus and other low-cost intercity bus carriers, and among the comments a theme that comes through is Megabus’ extremely poor communication. (I’ve personally only taken Bolt Bus from New York to Boston once, as the rise of these carriers didn’t happen until the end of my time in the Northeast, and it was a pleasant if traffic-heavy experience.) Frequency of transit service and road surface quality are paramount, but so is communicating any sort of change or disruption.
Second, the experience underlined the role of cars and motor vehicles in the city. Urbanists and smart-growth advocates are often accused of wanting to ban cars from cities entirely. This is not true, at least not for me. There are certain things, such as moving large items of furniture within a city, that are always going to be more practically done via motor vehicle (it’s been done via subway, but I wouldn’t recommend it). Even in places like New York with relatively excellent transit, I’d never want to be moving any sort of bulky package at all on the East Side’s 4/5/6 trains during rush hour.
Rather, it’s about choice. We’ve set up a paradigm in American cities where personal vehicles are often the only practical method of transportation, ranging from tasks which it is less suited (going downtown or to congested trendy city neighborhoods) to those for which it’s eminently suited (moving an enormous futon, or for small businesses who need deliveries of products and goods.) The point of developing transportation alternatives is allowing people to make these choices, and thereby improving the quality of life for everyone involved.
Finally, a note that there is a scheduled screening of Urbanized in Chicago now! I’ll be there on October 9 at the Music Box Theatre, of course. Excited.